Status quo bias and the government shutdown
Matthew Martin 9/22/2015 01:16:00 PM
"“On the Planned Parenthood issue, the people who are threatening a shutdown is Barack Obama and his allies in the Senate. ... The Republicans are going to shut down the government? No, we're not. We are in support of funding the government fully, just not giving any more money to this one organization,” Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, said on Sean Hannity's radio show last week. “They're the ones shutting it down.”"A number of republicans are expressing the same sentiment as Rubio, which consists of two parts:
- There will be a shutdown over planned parenthood funding
- It will have been Obama's fault
It's worth exploring why. I think part of the issue is messaging. A shutdown hasn't happened yet, in theory it doesn't have to happen at all, and right now republicans are the only ones talking about it. This is how it happened with Obamacare too: republicans sound downright eager for a shutdown. Although the message they are trying to convey is that the democrats will have been responsible for the shutdown that will have happened if Obama doesn't budge, in practice this just sounds like a threat. Since as of right now there is no shutdown, you cannot say "They're the ones shutting it down" without yourself threatening to shut it down. And so all that the public hears is congressional republicans threatening to shutdown the government over planned parenthood funding. Basically, the first person to say "shut down" in any budget fight loses.
But I think there's a bigger reason the public blames republicans for these episodes, and that is status-quo bias. Obviously, who's at fault in one of these impasses is totally subjective. It is by definition impossible for one of the parties to agree to an agreement unless the other also agrees. If either disagrees, so does the other!
But voters understand that a shutdown is costly and dangerous bad behavior, and that blaming both parties equally only encourages it by magnifying the power of obstructionism. It's situations like this where the status quo bias plays a big role. One of the parties wants to maintain the status quo funding for planned parenthood, while the other wants to use a shutdown threat to alter the status quo by revoking those funds. In a sense both are risking a shutdown for their positions, but blame rests on those proposing the change in policy, not those defending the status quo. It was the same last time: one of the parties wanted to defend a status quo in which the ACA was law of the land, while the other wanted to use a shutdown to force a repeal of the law.
So here's my theory of public perceptions: In a shutdown, the party proposing the change is to blame.