How a Government Shutdown Could Have Saved Washington

Having averted a government shutdown at the last moment Friday night, most of Washington is breathing easier this week as Congress puts the finishing touches on the $38.5 billion in spending cuts agreed to in the deal. But not everyone is happy about the outcome -- and that could have serious implications in the much bigger struggle about to come over whether to raise the federal debt ceiling.

During the fight just concluded over this year's budget, those agitating most aggressively to shut the government down were often portrayed as wild-eyed Tea Party freshmen bent on sowing discord and making puppets of the GOP leadership. But that misconstrued both the identity of most of the aggressors and the larger purpose in what they were trying to do.

To begin with, most of them aren't freshmen. Only 21 of the 54 members who opposed the last continuing resolution -- the interim spending bill -- were new to Congress. The majority were veteran conservative lawmakers. And they weren't driven by recklessness or anger, so much as by a strategic imperative to exploit what they believe is a fleeting but historical opportunity: They interpret last November's election results as having been a clear expression of the country's desire to cut back the size of government -- a desire that wasn't adequately reflected in the cuts on the table.

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Everyone in Washington agreed that shutting down the government would cause an uproar. Most people expected that it would be the Republicans who bore the most blame. But these conservatives believed exactly the opposite: that a shutdown would prompt frustrated Americans to demand much larger cuts. This in turn would give conservatives momentum and leverage not just on the current budget, but in the upcoming negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and reform entitlements.

''We've been pushing this fight because we believe we can win the public-relations battle,'' an operative aligned with these conservatives told me. ''Unlike 1995, when Newt Gingrich shut down the government, we now have all these ways to amplify our message: the Tea Party, Fox News, the conservative blogosphere.'' But, he added, ''Our strongest leverage point was November 3rd, and every day after that we're losing a bit of momentum. We feel if we don't fight now, we won't have any credibility with our constituents.''

A shutdown over the continuing resolution would have clarified who was right in this debate, without posing any real risk to the economy. But that of course didn't happen, so nothing has been resolved. Instead, Washington has turned to the next big fight, where the stakes are much, much higher. If Congress fails to raise the federal debt limit, the government will default, which all parties agree would have catastrophic effects on the economy.

The great danger is that conservatives frustrated by their leadership's unwillingness to force a shutdown will try again as the parties attempt to negotiate the debt ceiling. They still believe that Americans want greater cuts than Democrats will agree to, and that the opportunity to impose those cuts is fast slipping away. Their frustration is evident. A number of conservatives in the House and Senate have announced that they'll vote against the budget deal. And some of them now say they're prepared to refuse to raise the debt limit, as well.

One of the clearest signs that this threat is genuine is that it's not being made strictly by fringe conservatives. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising star considered a leading contender for the vice presidential nomination, says he'll vote against any expansion of the debt unless it is ''accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment'' and entitlement reforms -- in other words, everything conservatives want. That's not going to happen before May 16, the date on which the United States is projected to hit the debt limit.

It's not clear what will happen then. Wall Street bankers are already growing nervous. Strange as it may now seem, the day could soon arrive when everyone regrets the budget deal that has just been struck and wishes instead that the government had shut down.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.