If there’s one rule of a government shutdown to remember, it’s this: the president always wins.
That’s because the rules of a shutdown are written to favor The White House, said John Cooney, the man who helped write them.
“The president has won every shutdown battle with Congress that there has ever been,” said Cooney, a former counsel for the Office of Management and Budget and current partner at Venable LLP.
“For the people in Congress who are considering creating an impasse now… my question [is this]: ‘What are you going to do different than what your predecessors did?’”
Cooney posed the question as part of a Professional Services Council panel on how to prepare for possibly the third government shutdown in 20 years, as all eyes are on an appropriations clock that might run out next week.
Twenty-eight Republican House members have pledged to vote against any appropriations that include funding to Planned Parenthood after a summer of controversial sting videos at the organization were released. With funding set to expire on Sept. 30, the potential of another shutdown has been the fall’s most-watched cliffhanger in Washington.
But Cooney, who helped craft the 1982 amendments to the Antideficiency Act—the law that governs shutdown procedure—reminded the audience that the OMB-crafted rules for a shutdown tip public opinion in favor of the administration.
“You are essentially in a position of trying to make a frontal assault on a prepared position,” he said. “What the White House does perfectly is it has a public relations plan ready to make Congress look awkward.”
That plan looks something like this: Agencies rally, pulling together a list of horribles that they leak to to the media. And if there is a shutdown, the public will see similar imagery to what filtered out in 2013 — individuals guarding monuments along the National Mall, saying they’re closed because Congress hasn’t appropriated the funds.
But while the eventual victor of a potential shutdown isn’t much of a mystery, whether one will happen come Oct. 1 is less easy to predict. Cooney noted that while agencies will provide guidance on their shutdown procedures, they may do so at the last minute, so not to reveal the administration’s hand in negotiations.
“OMB traditionally, and certainly this time, is still in that process of keeping its decisions very close to the vest,” he said. “It’s not going to tell the agencies, even at a policy level, how the president wants things changed this time around. It’s going to give those instructions as late as possible, because it doesn’t want a leak.”
Still, he said any shutdown that might occur will look very similar to the 2013 impasse, with the government much more prepared than it was two years ago.
“There hadn’t been a shutdown since 1995 and 1996 before 2013. Everything had changed within the agencies in the interim,” Cooney said. “I’m told the GSA couldn’t find its ’95 shutdown plan. Finally, somebody in the Kansas City regional office was clearing out a storage room and found it on a three-ring binder.”