With the words “government shutdown” on every news commentator’s lips these days, it’s time for a little – in Thomas Paine’s famous phrase – common sense.
First, let’s put things in perspective: The government “shuts down” every weekend and nothing bad happens. That’s right: the courts are closed, most EPA and other administrative agency personnel go home, the Washington Navy Yard closes up shop, immigration offices aren’t open, and almost every Sunday morning the President plays a little golf. Nobody suffers much and the nation is no worse off: civilian airliners keep flying; the U. S. Armed Forces remain on patrol throughout the globe; the Interstate Highway System remains open; and everybody’s Social Security check still goes out on time even though the so-called “trust fund” doesn’t really exist.
Even in the wake of the current so-called “shutdown” all these things and more remain true: Government-subsidized colleges and universities (and that means most of them, through tuition and research grants) continue to hold classes; the Public Broadcasting System remains on the air; and even the First Lady’s Twitter account reportedly remains active.
Yes, a lot of government employees are technically on “furlough” right now, but at most they’ve missed one pay date and if the past is any guide they will all get paid in arrears for what amounts to an unscheduled – if unwelcome – vacation at the taxpayers’ expense. Meanwhile, for those employed in the private sector, federal income taxes, Social Security, and Medicare payments will continue to be withheld from their paychecks and remitted to the government regardless of how long the so-called “shutdown” lasts.
So why the entire hullabaloo? In a word, politics. Both major parties in the sausage-making business of legislating hope to achieve their legislative aims and/or score political points by engaging in brinksmanship and both hope the people will blame the other party.
Republicans in the House of Representatives (“the people’s house”) view Obamacare (the so-called “Affordable Care Act”) as politically unpopular, economically unwise, and not yet ready for prime time; they therefore seek to defund or to delay its implementation as part of government funding discussions in which they play a vital and necessary Constitutional role.
The President and the Senate – who have delayed or waived or exempted every major provision of Obamacare except for the so-called “individual mandate” – nonetheless see the Act as the one signature achievement of this administration. They therefore refuse to agree to anything that will loosen their toehold on the century-old progressive dream of establishing a socialized national health care system that actually originated with Otto von Bismarck. Rather than agree even to delay for a year the one major portion of the Act that has not already been suspended, delayed, or waived, the President refuses to sign and the Senate refuses to pass a bill to “keep the government running” while blaming their intransigence on “extreme” “right wing” “hostage-taking” “tea party” (choose your favorite adjective or epithet) Republicans in the House.
Yet even the Senate’s proposed funding solution – a so-called “continuing resolution” – is merely the political equivalent of calling up your credit card company and asking for your 100th credit limit increase because you refuse to live within your means. It’s been years since the government has even adopted a budget, the nation continues to run unsustainable annual deficits, and the taxpayers are saddled with a virtually unpayable 16.7 trillion dollar national debt. Meanwhile, the authorized debt ceiling rapidly approaches and will be reached around mid-October.
So what to do? Herewith a modest proposal: continue the so-called “shutdown” as a matter of fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers and vote to fund, program by program and department by department, only those functions that are both (a) set forth as enumerated powers of the national government in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution and (b) absolutely necessary for a national government – as opposed to private parties or state and local governments – to accomplish.
Maintain an army and a navy? Yes; the Constitution empowers Congress to do so and it would be unwise policy to contract national defense out to the private sector (even though private companies actually build the nation’s planes, tanks, and ships). Subsidize the National Endowment for the Arts? No; the arts are important – perhaps essential – to a civilized society, but private patrons, benefactors, and fans of museums and the performing arts are perfectly capable of supporting those they prefer. Administer a patent system and a court system? Yes. Impose a national health care plan? No. Coin money? Yes. Dictate what size or kind of toilets, showerheads, and light bulbs a free people must buy? No. You get the idea.
Consider it a Constitutional Convention on the installment plan but think of it as “zero-based budgeting”: when you’re seriously over your head in debt and your credit cards are maxed out, instead of looking just to how much you spent last year and deciding how much more (or even less) you want to spend next year, first consider what you really need and then pay for only the essentials until you’re out of debt and your budget is under control. Once that happens, resolve never to do it again.
The nation is in financial crisis and resolving it should be about more than just scoring political points or about whether the nation really needs, wants, or can afford Obamacare. To paraphrase former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, it would be a shame to let a serious crisis go to waste.