united states project

Showdown, shutdown, fallout

With the Obamacare fight threatening to shutter the government, reporters should keep the spotlight on their local members of Congress
September 24, 2013

FAIRWAY, KS — “I was not sent to Washington to shut down the federal government,” Sen. Mike Johanns told the Lincoln Journal-Star over the weekend.

The Nebraska Republican was lashing out at the GOP-led House, which had voted on Friday to tie the continued funding of the entire federal government to the defunding of the Affordable Care Act–a move that could set the stage for a government shutdown next week. Johanns added that he “did not sign onto the Cruz letter.”

Readers could be forgiven for not understanding this reference, as it had received little to no local coverage before then. In part, Johanns was taking a shot at the Cornhusker State’s other GOP senator, Deb Fischer, who did sign “the Cruz letter,” as the Journal-Star went on to point out. (Update: Nick Simpson, a spokesman for Johanns, emails to dispute this characterization of the senator’s remarks. Johanns was “disagreeing on strategy,” but “not ‘lashing out’ our ‘taking a shot’ at anyone,” Simpson writes. See note at bottom for more.)

The “Cruz letter” actually was not the work of conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, but of his fellow Tea Party Republican Mike Lee of Utah. Back in July, Lee obtained signatures from Fischer and 13 other conservative senators on a missive to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledging not to vote for any continuing resolution that funds Obamacare. In August, House Republicans followed suit, with 80 members signing a letter circulated by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-NC, urging GOP leadership to use the appropriations process to defund the health care law.

Though it was signed by only a minority of the caucus, the House letter in particular signaled to Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor that they would have trouble getting the votes for a continuing resolution funding the government if it allowed Obamacare to be implemented on schedule at the beginning of October. The entire caucus is opposed to the health care law, but a vote to defund (like the bill that passed Friday, based on legislation drafted by Cruz and Rep. Tom Graves) is one thing; a pledge never to vote for a funding bill that provides money for Obamacare is another matter entirely.

“Support for the Cruz/Graves bills is absolutely meaningless without also signing the Lee/Meadows letter,” Joshua Withrow of FreedomWorks insisted last month, admonishing Republicans to sign. “Harry Reid and his Democrats will have no incentive to compromise unless they know the Republicans are willing to take a hard stance–even allowing the government to be shut down, if necessary–in order to stop the catastrophically unworkable and unaffordable health care law from taking effect this January.”

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Backed by FreedomWorks and other conservative advocacy groups such as Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund, this vocal minority of Republicans has held firm on this “hard stance,” and they have forced Boehner and Cantor to go along–even while Johanns and several other Republicans have objected to the strategy.

Several of the more influential and outspoken signees to these petitions come from here in the Midwest–including Fischer of Nebraska; Rep. Tim Huelskamp and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas; Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King of Iowa; and Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri. But you won’t find much in the local media about their involvement, with a few exceptions.

The Des Moines Register did compile a substantive piece on the GOP letters late last month, using AP copy but making special note of King and Grassley, eliciting comment from Grassley’s office, and posting the August letter itself at the bottom. In Missouri, the Rolla Daily News also localized an AP story on the letters, highlighting the fact that Rep. Jason Smith was one of the signees, and obtaining a quote from Smith explaining his reasoning.

Otherwise, there has been little coverage in the region. In Kansas, the involvement of the state’s delegation, particularly Huelskamp’s outspoken advocacy in pushing the GOP caucus into a shutdown stare-down, has gone largely unreported, other than a few truncated blog posts from the Wichita Eagle.

This is not to suggest that local journalists should feel obligated to throw bricks at Huelskamp and other signees as liberal bloggers (and Republicans like Johanns) have done–only that they make sure their readers are aware of what their members of Congress have been doing and what the consequences may be.

See, for instance, this hometown writeup by Jon Ostendorff of the Asheville (NC) Citizen-Times on a town hall event last month hosted by Rep. Meadows of North Carolina, author of the House GOP letter. The headline says it all: “Meadows would close DC to stop Obamacare.” The story touches on a host of issues mentioned at the town hall but foregrounds Meadows’ dramatic pledge to defund the health care law at all costs; records a mixed reaction of “boos and applause” in the hall; provides context on the House GOP letter; and does a little factchecking work:

Meadows said he does not fear economic decline with a shutdown because the federal government does not create jobs.

That’s not always the case. North Carolina’s unemployment rate increased slightly in July with the loss of government jobs tempering private sector gains.

This formula could be easily applied by reporters in Huelskamp’s district, or in any one of the districts and states represented by the senators and representatives who have made the same pledge. The GOP letters themselves are no longer news, but their reverberations only seem to increase by the day.

Some editors may object that a shutdown is a DC problem, not local news, and there’s no question that here in the Midwest, congressional correspondents are in short supply. Huelskamp’s rural district, for instance, has no major media markets, with only a host of smaller community papers sprinkled throughout; and even some of the larger papers nearby have scant resources to devote to Beltway intrigue.

Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Tim Carpenter, who recorded how the Kansas delegation voted in a story on Friday, told me that his paper emphasizes local rather than national news.

“The congressional coverage is something I do in my spare time,” he said.

The Wichita Eagle‘s Phillip Brownlee told me on Friday that his paper also has a local focus, although, he said, “We likely will do an editorial later next week as the deadline nears.”

Still, to one degree or another, a federal government shutdown is a local story.

According to the federal employees’ website, FedSmith.com, in 2011 there were 9,269 federal government workers in Iowa; 10,933 in Nebraska; 18,144 in Kansas; and 37,326 in Missouri. Many of these jobs–probably a majority, in fact–would not be subject to furlough in a shutdown because they are designated as “essential,” but even a few thousand furloughed workers in a less-populous Midwestern state over a sustained period could be enough to deliver a significant economic hit. In all, the Office of Management and Budget estimated that the 1995-96 shutdowns cost the federal government $1.4 billion.

And now, with Huelskamp and his fellow signees holding firm and Democrats, unsurprisingly, vowing that they will not agree to undo President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, history is set to repeat itself next week. The White House has already issued a memo calling on agencies to prepare for the worst.

Even if a shutdown is averted, Republican leaders are looking ahead to the debt-ceiling debate next month as another promising venue for defunding Obamacare. As recent history has shown, this gambit potentially holds even greater peril than a shutdown–threatening a US credit downgrade and worldwide economic turmoil. So this story is not going away anytime soon.

In April 2011, the last time a shutdown seemed to be a real possibility, KMBZ radio in Kansas City asked Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri a key question about the potential local fallout:

KMBZ: What happens to the people in your district–your constituency–if the shutdown does come?

Graves: Well, obviously, the government essentially, you know, shuts down, other than vital services. And that’s the last thing we want to happen. We’re working very hard to try to make sure that we avoid that, and move forward.

Now, Graves is one of the 80 signees to the Meadows letter, which has precipitated another shutdown threat. This week, it’s time for reporters in the region to pose this question again.

Update: After this post was published, Nick Simpson, a spokesman for Sen. Johanns, sent CJR an email disputing the post’s characterization of the senator’s position. His email included this explanation:

[Johanns] supports the House-passed CR and is planning to vote for the motion to proceed and cloture. He did not sign the Cruz letter, in part, because he wanted to read the CR before announcing how he would vote. When the letter was circulated, there was no CR. Secondly, he is opposed to shutting down the government over Obamacare funding because even with a shutdown, the law would still continue to be implemented. In short, a shutdown wouldn’t achieve every Republican’s goal of stopping the flawed health care law. But disagreeing on strategy is a far cry from “taking a shot” at someone.

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Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.