Why the House GOP's Shutdown Strategy is Doomed


Three days into the first government shutdown since 1996, negotiations between the House GOP and Democrats remain unproductive. Drama surrounding the House Republican’s strategy of linking continued government funding with the delaying or defunding of President Obama’s signature health care law continues. The original strategy of Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor — pairing health care squabbles with the looming debt ceiling fight — was dismissed by rank-and-file House Republicans earlier this week.

Calculating that blame would fall squarely on Obama and Sen. Harry Reid’s allies: 229 House Republicans voted to condition continued government funding on the delay of Obamacare and repeal of a tax on medical devices.

It seems that the public, disfavoring House Republican strategy 3:1, has little recourse in influencing the outcome of the shutdown. But public choice analysis — the idea that politicians behave as individuals do in the private sector, responding to incentives — suggests that compromise may be nearer than many expect.

Several empirical studies demonstrate that, over the long term, public opinion influences policy decisions. In addition, as the salience of a particular issue increases, policy decisions further conform to majoritarian influence. Several instances come to mind: The Civil Rights Act of 1964 came after public support increased in the early 1960s; seat belt requirements and the legalization of abortion were driven by mass opinion of the mid-to-late 1960s; swift changes in public opinion brought entry into WWII and exit from Vietnam. Nearly 70% of decisions conformed to public opinion in more than 200 policy issues in 1982 alone.

But with issues like the government shutdown — those that require immediate, rather than prolonged, action — many remain skeptical of the public’s ability to shape policy outcomes.

Driving skepticism is the myth that elected officials behave differently — more nobly and disinterested — than individuals in the market. Consider, though, that political behavior, often thought of as benevolent and anti-parochial, resembles marketplace behavior. Farmbelt Republicans support agriculture subsidies while Democratic senators entering midterm elections next year distance themselves from Obamacare.

Public choice analysis supplants romance with reality, explaining that officeholders respond to incentives just as those in the private sector do. Reflect on last month’s overwhelming opposition to Syria. Returning to Washington from the summer recess, bipartisan opposition quickly materialized in direct response to constituent opposition. Republican congressional aides consistently reported that opposition to a strike in Syria was greater than 90%. “The total breakdown,” said Dan Kotman, communications director for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), is 641:4 against intervention.” Such fervor, and assists from David Cameron’s parliamentary clumsiness and Vladimir Putin’s New York Times piece, led to an overnight White House drawdown.

Public choice analysis tells us that the House, because of a 72% disapproval of current GOP strategy, will probably concede to Obama’s demands to end the stalemate. Two hundred and thirty-two House Republicans face re-election next year. Putting aside whether conceding to Democrats is the optimal policy decision, rational behavior requires striking a deal. The tactical move is to push the delaying or defunding of Obamacare down the road.

We can reasonably expect, then, that the House will move to the center. As a result, a deal to continue funding will be struck, and Republicans will regroup for 2014.