Government Shutdown, Debt Ceiling Crises: What’s Next?

UC Riverside political scientists are available to offer analyses and put the current crisis in government in context

U.S. Capitol dome

UCR scholars are available to discuss the government shutdown.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — With the federal government shut down and the deadline approaching to raise the debt ceiling, is it possible to resolve the deadlock in Congress and avert another meltdown of the U.S. economy?

Political scientists at the University of California, Riverside are available to put the crisis in context, analyze the dysfunction in Congress, and suggest how pundits, pollsters and the press can more intelligently discern the will of the people.

These experts are available:

Ben Bishin

Ben Bishin

Ben Bishin, associate professor of political science
(951) 827-4637

“The government we have is the government that the framers, who were economic elites, designed,” Bishin says. “We are seeing the result of that structure today.”

In his 2009 book “Tyranny of the Minority,” Bishin describes how intense minorities are able to achieve their policy objectives. “Politicians gain disproportionate benefits by appealing to citizens who feel very strongly about things. Usually they are able to tap in to some aspect of how individuals see themselves. It’s particularly easy for this intense minority of tea party supporters to achieve their policy objectives because their objectives are to stop things from happening in Congress. Congress and our government in general are designed to make it difficult to get things to happen.”

The stated goal of tea party Republicans to stop “Obamacare” could be viewed as a waste of time in that the Affordable Care Act does not require funding this budget, Bishin says. However, the stalemate is “leading to a scenario where the budget that is likely to be adopted will be a short-term budget, adopted in the form of a continuing resolution. Amounts in continuing resolutions tend to be much lower than what is negotiated and agreed to in the normal budget process. Many of the basic benefits and services we’ve come to expect, whether it be inspection of food before it hits the supermarket or routine maintenance, likely will be funded at lower levels than if the normal budget process were working.”

Redistricting has led to a high level of electoral security for most members of Congress, he says. “The reason (certain Republican) legislators are free to take actions we view as extreme is they don’t have to worry about facing an electoral challenge from a Democrat.  … Their concern is not with trying to appeal to the average voter or what the majority of the public wants. They want to appeal to their intense constituency, which is a particular wing of the Republican Party.”

The Republican brand has lost so much of its appeal that the loss of congressional seats the president’s party historically experiences in a midterm election is not a sure thing in 2014, Bishin adds. “The people who are going to be at risk are the small number of Republicans in competitive districts. Once they feel enough pressure and they get concerned, if they go to the leadership and say this (shutdown) is all great but you’re not gaining anything policywise and you may lose the majority, that’s the kind of thing likely to make them act. Either that, or once the tea party Republicans have been satisfied that they’re not going to get a reversal of Obamacare, perhaps they will allow a vote to come to the floor even though a majority will vote against it. Those are the most likely scenarios (to resolving the current impasse) and they’re problematic, especially with respect to the debt ceiling.”

Ben Bishin video on the government shutdown
Ben Bishin website

John Cioffi

John Cioffi

John Cioffi, associate professor of political science
(951) 827-7269

The U.S. experienced a series of government shutdowns over budgetary impasse during the 1980s, another period of intensifying ideological polarization following the rise of the “New Right” and the election of Ronald Reagan, Cioffi says.  This time, however, the polarization is much deeper and the stakes are higher.

“There are two important things to keep in mind in order to understand the budget impasse and government shutdown. First, the current gridlock on Congress is hardly unprecedented, but it has worsened as a result of developments in the composition and character of the Republican Party and, to a lesser extent, of the Democratic Party.”

The U.S. historically had two major parties with cross-cutting internal divisions and large parts of both parties with overlapping policy preferences, for example, on welfare, fiscal policy, civil rights, and anti-communism policies. “In the last 20 years, that has changed as the Republican Party, taken over by Southern conservatives, has become a much more ideologically homogenous party and therefore more intransigent against compromise. These conservatives are also far more hostile to government (when it doesn’t serve their interests) and willing to damage it in the process of shutting it down. This hostility goes beyond temporary government shutdown to playing chicken over the extension of the government’s debt limit and a potential governmental default — and thus imperiling the national and global financial system.”

The Democrats are somewhat more ideologically unified than in the past, but not nearly to the degree as the GOP, Cioffi adds. “The Democrats, as a party, have not moved to the left as the GOP has moved to the right. In fact, the Democrats have moved significantly to the right during the past 25 years — just not as far or as fast as the GOP.”

Secondly, political polarization produces destructive crises because it occurs within a constitutional system that cannot accommodate ideologically cohesive parties, Cioffi explains. “When bipartisan deals are impossible, the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution kick in — not as intended, but as designed — and grind government to a literal halt. The possibility of divided government, the Senate filibuster, the electoral system itself favoring a two-party duopoly and allowing partisan gerrymandering, have driven us to this state of dysfunction. The Constitution is increasingly not the solution to our problems, but the problem itself.

“The U.S. is still in a severely weakened economic state of low growth and high unemployment. The macroeconomic impact of a shutdown is far more destructive now because the economy is far more dependent on government spending than under healthier conditions.  And a debt default probably would be catastrophic.”

John Cioffi website
Policy, Regulatory Failures Produced Meltdown

Kevin Esterling

Kevin Esterling

Kevin Esterling, professor of political science
(951) 827-3833

Media reports suggest that anywhere from 24 percent to 39 percent of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling, making it appear that a sizable number of Americans would prefer to risk default and create financial disaster in order to compel a delay in the Affordable Care Act. A report Esterling co-authored that was published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2011 — “Means, Motive, and Opportunity in Becoming Informed about Politics: A Deliberative Field Experiment Involving Members of Congress and their Constituents” (  — shows that most citizens do not have fully developed understandings of policies but instead only come to understand the details of a policy when they have a reason to.

“Political reporters, as well as political scientists, spend all day thinking and reading about politics, as does everyone in their social networks, and they tend to forget that most citizens do not have a similar reason to pay close attention to politics,” Esterling explains. “So when they receive a call from a survey firm asking their opinions on policy, the respondent answers the policy questions with whatever happens to come to mind when they are read the question, usually relying on the question itself for information on how to answer. So, survey respondents will hear the words ‘debt ceiling’ and think to themselves that debt is bad, and so answer that the ceiling should not be raised.”

If, however, the survey question were worded with enough information that the respondent could understand the issue and make an informed response they likely would answer the question differently, Esterling says.  A better way to ask the debt-ceiling question would be: “Later this month Congress will need to decide whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling in order to pay its obligations. If Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, the nation would go into default, and most economists state that a default would create a new worldwide recession, where many people would lose their jobs and many people’s retirement and savings would shrink. If faced with this choice what would you do?”  Raise the debt ceiling? Not raise the debt ceiling?’

The question also could be worded to include whether the respondent would like to tie the increase in the debt ceiling to negotiations over the Affordable Care Act or to spending cuts or tax increases and risk default in those scenarios, Esterling says. “But the point is that simply asking non-expert citizens their opinion on the debt ceiling and reporting their responses as if they were useful for guiding policy is misguided, and in this case, dangerous.”

Kevin Esterling website
Americans Moderate Views in Deliberative Democracy Experiment

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