Another Minnesota legislative session has come and gone, and once again the Democrats have used the threat of a government shutdown to coerce several hundred million dollars in spending out of the Republican-controlled House. There are several strategies Republicans can adopt to put an end to this now-common charade.
Play to the crowd
Republicans seem to share the false impression that politics is a business. They appear to believe that, if they behave in a businesslike manner, the public will reward them for their professionalism.
In reality, politics is a verbal cage match with the onlookers choosing sides based on 30-second sound bites. If most Republicans want to treat it as business as usual, then they better select a few articulate firebrands to get out in front of the cameras on a daily basis. They will never win a public-relations battle without a public-relations machine.
Keep the lights on
Republicans must begin every session by passing a bill providing for basic funding for government in the event of a budget impasse. When the Democrats refuse to pass it, Republicans must publicize this for what it is — a clear indication of an intention to shut down the government. Republicans should raise this point with the public frequently during the session.
If Republicans have important principles over which they will not negotiate, they should make this clear to the Democrats and the public at the beginning of the session. If the Democrats attempt to resurrect one of these issues at the end of the session, it will be clear that they are trying to avoid a deal, not reach one.
Forge a new premise
From the beginning of each session, Republicans must attack the Democrats’ premise that the solution to every problem is government regulation and spending. Whenever this premise is allowed to stand, Republicans look miserly alongside the free-spending Democrats.
Republicans must prove to the public that government intervention cannot solve many problems and often makes matters worse. There are endless examples of this at the state and local levels. Republicans should also offer market-based solutions to problems that do exist. They can then oppose Democratic non-solutions on principle — not just on cost — and avoid the charge that they are just “Democrat lite.”
Leave room to move
During the legislative session in 2011, the Republicans put their “final” budget number on the table early, in hopes of facilitating the negotiations. While this is a tempting strategy, it almost always fails. Sooner or later, the other side puts a higher number on the table and insists on a “compromise.” An extended refusal to budge smacks of bad faith.
From the beginning of the session, Republicans need to attack the premise that all programs deserve an increase and therefore the budget must go up. Based on performance, some programs should receive less money and some should be defunded entirely. By taking a more aggressive posture on ineffective programs, Republicans can leave themselves more room to negotiate on the overall budget.
Remove the upside
Democrats engage in shutdown politics because it is their only leverage to get what they want, and because Republicans have allowed them to play the game without consequences. This has to stop.
• First, Republicans should insist that the last offer they put on the table at the end of the session is the best offer the Democrats will ever get. If they adhere to this principle, the potential benefits of a shutdown disappear.
• Second, Republicans should make clear that any money not spent during a shutdown will be deducted from a final deal. If employees are furloughed, they will be on unpaid leave, not paid vacation. Let the unions lobby the Democrats to reach a deal during the regular session.
• Finally, Republicans should announce that any administrative costs of a special session and a government shutdown will be deducted from the final budget, not added to it. If Democrats realize that every dime they spend after the regular session will come out of their programs, they will be more willing to compromise during the session.
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Democrats use the prospect of a shutdown as a public-relations crowbar to pry unnecessary spending out of Republicans. By strengthening their bargaining and public-relations positions throughout the session, Republicans can eliminate this leverage and stand firm on the spending level they believe is right for Minnesota.
Gregg J. Cavanagh, of Maple Grove, is an attorney.