John Baer: How budget fights & scare tactics go hand in hand

Posted: September 21, 2009

PUBLIC UTTERANCES by our public leaders during dual budget woes in the city and state offered citizens something more than a few helpings of fear and loathing: They offered a lesson right out of Poli Sci 101.

It's called "The Washington Monument Strategy."

It's a tactic taken when elected officials seeking something, in this case more tax dollars to spend, threaten to shut down beloved or needed services close to constituents' hearts or daily lives. As in, if we can't agree on new federal spending, we'll have to close the Washington Monument.

"We talk about the strategy in class," says Temple associate political science professor Michael Hagen. "It's frequently used . . . President Clinton actually did threaten to close the Washington Monument during his budget battle in the '90s."

The strategy is a pressure builder and we've just seen examples of it.

No higher sales tax in Philly? Then there'll be blood in streets, piles of uncollected trash, raging fires and no libraries or rec centers.

No higher taxes in Pennsylvania? Then public education ceases to exist, State Police stop functioning and state parks get sold to private developers.

Some threats were similar: Mayor Nutter said he'd lay off 739 police officers; Gov. Rendell said 800 state troopers would go.

It's the politics of panic. It plays to peoples' fears and politicians' advantage. Predict the worst then save the day.

And now that the Legislature approved the mayor's sales tax and the Guv has a deal raising taxes on cigarettes, business and some entertainment, well, things aren't so bad.

"There is a tremendous amount of joy in Philadelphia right now," Nutter proclaimed Thursday after his bill passed.

"I know it's hard for the people of Pennsylvania to accept the fact that they are a winner but they are," Rendell said Friday of his budget pact.

"It's a play from the playbook they run over and over," says David Thornburgh, director of the Fels School of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you tracked it, I'm certain the ratio of times when dire predictions ever happen is small . . . You get weary of it. I think it builds cynicism among citizens."

I agree.

Rarely do those in power start such tactics by opening up the guts of government and excising their own. As in, things are so bad we have to cancel our consultant contracts, do away with private lobbyists, stop hiring outside lawyers when our staffs are full of them, cut salaries and perks, stop funding lawmakers' pet projects and reduce the largest legislative staff in America by 10 to 20 percent.

(In fairness, Mayor Nutter took a 10 percent pay cut and Gov. Rendell pretends he took a cut by not accepting a raise.)

But mostly what we hear is deep cuts in things impacting average citizens rather than politicians. And what we see are budget hostages selected for maximum effect: critical city services, state workers in Harrisburg and public safety everywhere.

Then when doomsday is avoided and things end up less horrible than scaremongers suggested, the mayor, the governor, the president, whoever, is a hero for saving our bacon.

Is it honest?

"If you believe government functions well and has no choice but to cut services, it is. But if you believe there's a lot of waste in government, then elected officials threatening to shut services rather than cutting bureaucracy are misleading you," says Temple's Hagen.

There's also the fact these "crises" eat up time and resources, divert attention from promised, needed reforms and allow the same culture contributing to recurring budget problems to go largely unaddressed.

Will it stop? Not as long as it works.

But we could shorten the process by upping the stakes. Penn's Thornburgh suggests maybe next time threaten to shut down the lottery and close State Stores.

Good idea. And no doubt much more effective than threatening to close the Washington Monument.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/baer.

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