As the post-mortems on the federal government “shutdown” pile up, here’s one more.
The exercise in brinkmanship turned out to be too painful for the GOP leadership to sustain. In the end, 27 Senate and 87 House Republicans voted to approve the lightly-cloaked surrender resolution last week. Taking a step back from the 24/7 coverage and furor, the shutdown says something about both how important government has become in American life, historically speaking, and how relatively unimportant it is, comparatively speaking.
The shutdown was both too much and not much.
Sort of Shutdown
What happened was not, of course, a “shutdown,” but maybe a half a shutdown. Some small programs that made for good visuals – parks, monuments, baby panda cameras, web portals, Head Start classrooms – closed, but the biggest parts of the federal government kept on chugging: The Social Security Administration kept sending out checks and collecting taxes (although it couldn’t issue replacement cards – see pdf). Government health programs – Medicare, Medicaid, the VA – kept treating or paying for the treatment of tens of millions of Americans. American soldiers abroad did not stand down; they kept getting shot at. Other key functions continued. For example, air traffic controllers kept planes in the air and TSA screeners kept checking air passengers’ toiletries.
To be sure, if the shutdown had continued for a long while, the infrastructure underneath these functions would have started to crumble: Without the sorts of people who re-order the office supplies, fix the computers, hire new personnel to replace retirees, make sure the lights are on, and generally oil the machinery, eventually even the “essential” functions would suffer. But as shutdowns go, it wasn’t much. In some countries, just one union going on strike can do more to stop daily life than this whole “shutdown” did here.
Yet, the pain of the partial shutdown – plus, of course, the threat of default, which would have been another, broader way of closing the government – was too great for all but the “lemmings with suicide vests,” in the immortal phrase of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). For instance, there were the looming threats to life and limb on farms and factory floors from the cutback in food and work regulation. There were the legions of small businessmen hung up by delays in paperwork for government loans, certifications, and the like. (Many low-income Americans got snagged there, too, but their pain probably moved few legislators.) There was the prospect that the great R&D operation of the federal government – the basic source of American innovation from medicine to electronics (see here and here) and the feeder to private enterprise – was grinding to a halt. (At one point, the House GOP offered to restart NIH to get cancer research going again.)
The pay freeze for many federal employees and many laid-off workers in companies contracting to the government not only pained the victims, it had knock-on effects. In communities around the country many people seemed surprised to discover that their customers are paid directly or indirectly by the government, which means that they are as well.
A Couple of Lessons
The disruption of even a partial shutdown (and the prospect of what a full one would look like) underlines how much the national government’s role has grown. A century ago, before Social Security, before Medicare, before the national parks, the agricultural extension and small business support systems, the food and work safety programs, unemployment insurance and disability support, before the permanent, large military, before civil liberties extensions and their legal protectors, health research institutions, interstate highways, rural electrification, food stamps and farm subsidies, radio-tv-internet supervision, the Federal Reserve and bank deposit insurance, subsidies to local governments for our schools, colleges, police, roads, sewers, and the like, and on and on and on – a century ago, such a partial shutdown would have spread much less pain and much more slowly. Whether you applaud or abhor these examples of the federal role, the shutdown illustrates how much it has grown.
And yet, the shutdown shows how limited the federal government’s role is here, compared to the national governments in other affluent, democratic countries. Police here are not federal employees; nor are teachers; nor are most doctors, nurses, and health attendants. The federal government is rarely the landlord or housing lender. The feds do not provide (although they may snoop on) cable and internet communications. So, most Americans could drop the kids at school, go to work, stop in for their regular teeth cleaning, shop on the way home, have dinner, watch tv, and go to sleep quite well without noticing a shutdown – at least, for a while. Whether you like or hate these examples of American exceptionalism, the shutdown illustrates how exceptional it is.
(Re-posted on the Boston Review website.)