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8 September 1998

Our current howler: A shutdown on good common sense

Synopsis: Can the press corps decipher a government shutdown? Let’s just say that the signs are not hopeful.

Commentary by Tim Russert
Meet the Press, NBC, 9/6/98

Is there any chance that the press corps will report, with clarity,on a possible government shutdown? So far, the signs aren’t encouraging. In the past few weeks, we twice reported on a David Broder column in which the dean presented a strange new view of the ’95 government shutdowns--a view newly in line with current GOP efforts to rewrite the history of that silly affair (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/26/98 and 9/1/98). And we noted Broder’s failure to consider the political positioning that is likely involved in the GOP’s much-bruited new fear--their “fear” that President Clinton might somehow “force” a government shutdown this fall.

Let’s review what has to happen for the government to shut down. Two separate things have to occur--a fact the press corps almost never keeps straight in its coverage of government shutdowns.

First:the president and Congress must fail to pass appropriation bills by the October 1 deadline. Since Clinton may veto some GOP bills this fall, this could occur in the present cycle.

Second:The president and Congress must fail to agree on a “continuing resolution” to keep the government running. The government closes onlywhen president and Congress fail to pass a short-term CR.

In the current climate, the notion that President Clinton could veto a reasonable CR, and then somehow blame Congress for the shutdown--well, it’s about as likely as Phil Gramm announcing he’s going finance a bunch of new X-rated movies. In our view, there is no imaginable situation--none at all--in which President Clinton could “force” a fall shutdown.

But that didn’t stop a breathless Tim Russert from promoting the improbable idea this past Sunday. The Meet the Presshost was aflame with the thought that Big Bill Just Might Cause A Big Shutdown.

Tim’s guest, Trent Lott, Senate GOP chief, answered questions about impeachment proceedings. Then Russert took the questioning on to the topic of a possible government shutdown:

RUSSERT: Talking about doing your work in Congress, in about three weeks the federal government will shut down unless the Congress appropriates moneys and the president approves such appropriations. Will there be a government shutdown?

For starters, Lott spoke common sense:

LOTT: I don’t think there will be. There’s no need for it to be...When we get to the end of the fiscal year, we may be short two or three bills. The traditional thing that’s done almost every year, Democratic or Republican have a continuing resolution which is usually a short-term extension...

But then, Lott just couldn’t resist the chance to spin the debate about possible government shutdowns:

LOTT: But you know there are those who are asking the question, would the president use a shutdown of the government to change the subject?

RUSSERT: And the answer is?

LOTT: I don’t know. Only he knows. Only he will know. I don’t think he knows right now...

But if President Clinton is still alive on this planet, he surely knows what Lott must also know. It would be absurdly hard, in the present climate, for Clinton to “force” a government shutdown--to refuse to sign a reasonable CR, then get the press corps to blame the Congress. You’d think almost anyonein Washington would know it--except for a certain Sunday host:

RUSSERT: But politically, doesn’t the president have the Republicans over the barrel? If there’s a government shutdown he has the bully pulpit, and he can blame you.

In the current climate, the notion that Clinton could blame Republicans for somethinghehas done is, again, a near-total absurdity. But no such thought would enter Russert’s mind. Here’s the way he framed the debate later on, in his Meet the Pressroundtable discussion:

RUSSERT: For the table: do you believe the president will try to force a government shutdown--switch the subject?

There was no other possibility in Russert’s mind--no one else could be scheming but Clinton. There was no thought, for example, that Republicansmight be trying to position Clinton in such a way that he would have to sign bills that he doesn’t much like (rather than find himselfbeing blamed for a government shutdown). We’d guess that when the shouts of a celebrity lynch mob start filling your ears, only one set of thoughts comes to mind...

Let’s spell it out. Almost surely, the GOP is setting the stage for fall veto battles, suggesting through suggestible hosts that Clinton is scheming for a shutdown. In the current climate, we find it impossible to imagine that President Clinton could get away with “forcing” a shutdown. But if the GOP can create a climate in which Clintonwould be blamed for any possible shutdown (even blamed in advance, as is currently happening), they can put more pressure on the Big He to sign budget bills he doesn’t much like.

THE HOWLER suggested on 8/26/98 that this may be current GOP strategy. And, in a climate in which a celebrity lynch mob is racin’ through town, just Blamin’ Bill Clinton For Pretty Much Everything, this is much more likely what is actually going on than the scenario Russert conveyed. Clintonwill be forcing a shutdown this fall? Please! In our view, The Big He will get away with forcing a shutdown this fall when Truck Stop Women--the Sequelhits the streets.

But front-running analysis is now all the rage, as Broder and Russert parrot GOP spin. And do we even have to say what we’ve said all along, as we watch these Big Dogs peddle odd shutdown theories? How it’s all just a part of what we dolove to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps?”