Politics & Policy

There Are Worse Things Than Government Shutdowns

Like continuing down our ruinous spending path, for instance.

It appears that the government is not going to shut down this Friday after all.

Republicans backed down just enough to get Democrats to agree to a two-week extension of government funding. The new “continuing resolution” will include about $4 billion in cuts, but not such GOP priorities as defunding Obamacare. As a result, the media and much of official Washington has breathed a huge sigh of relief. We’ve been saved from oblivion for another two weeks.

No one really wants to shut down the government, of course. But one does have to wonder why it is more important to prevent a government shutdown than it is to stop the tide of red ink threatening to engulf our economy.

While we tend to think of government shutdowns in terms of the 1995 shutdown, during which Pres. Bill Clinton outmaneuvered Republicans, short-term shutdowns were in fact fairly common prior to that: There were 15 shutdowns in the 18 years from 1977 to 1995. Most lasted just a few days, but some dragged on for up to two and a half weeks. Interestingly, most of these occurred under Democratic-controlled Congresses.

It is important to understand that a government shutdown also doesn’t shut down the government.

To start with, government activities that have “some reasonable and articulable connection between the function to be performed and the safety of human life or the protection of property” will continue regardless of whether Congress passes a CR. This includes not only such obvious things as military operations and homeland security, but also such things as air-traffic control, health care at Veterans Administration hospitals, law enforcement and criminal investigations, oversight of food and drug safety, nuclear safety, and so forth. In fact, much as we might wish it otherwise, even the IRS would continue to function under such a “shutdown.”

Government programs that are not subject to annual appropriations would also continue. For example, there would still be money to pay Social Security and Medicare benefits. It is true that if the shutdown went on long enough, it could force the furlough of some employees who process those benefits, resulting in delays in mailing checks or signing up new applicants. But the administration has considerable discretion over how it handles such furloughs. In 1995, for instance, many of the SSA employees who were initially furloughed were later brought back to ensure that checks went out.

If the 1995 shutdown is any guide, most government employees will stay at work. During that shutdown, fully 78 percent of workers for the Veterans Affairs Department, HUD, and the independent regulatory agencies remained at their posts. So did nearly two-thirds of Commerce, Justice, and State Department employees, along with slightly more than half of Interior employees and 42 percent of those working for Health and Human Services.

And, of course, shutdowns are not forever. Sooner or later, government does reopen, and everything returns to normal — for better or for worse.

That’s not to say that there won’t be problems or inconveniences as a result of a shutdown. Furloughed workers go without paychecks. Passport applications go unprocessed. Education and training programs may be suspended. Parks and monuments close. Vendors, including many small businesses, may have their payments delayed. A government shutdown is not a good thing.

But neither is continuing business as usual. By the administration’s own estimates, we face a $1.65 trillion deficit this year. Our national debt is about to hit the $14.3 trillion statutory limit. If the unfunded obligations of Social Security and Medicare are included, the real debt could go as high as $119 trillion. Against that backdrop, Republicans have proposed only $61 billion in cuts. If we can’t do that, what can we do?

In a world of imperfect, second-best choices, a government shutdown may not be the worst one.

Unlike in 1995, the public now seems to understand this. The most recent Rasmussen poll shows that 58 percent of likely voters prefer a government shutdown to continued spending at current levels. And, according to a poll for The Hill newspaper, if the government does shut down, voters are more likely to blame Democrats than Republicans — by a 30 percent–to–24 percent margin. Forty-five percent would hold both parties equally to blame. Independents would blame Democrats by a 34–19 margin.

The compromise CR reportedly makes its $4 billion in cuts by removing earmarks and cutting a small number of programs that President Obama had proposed reducing or eliminating. These are the low-hanging fruit of budgeting.

That means that the next set of negotiations is going to be much tougher. Republicans are going to be calling for cuts to programs that Democrats actually like. And, one hopes, Republicans will stick to policy goals such as preventing the implementation of Obamacare.

The next deadline will likely be March 18, when this newest CR runs out. Once again, we can expect to hear apocalyptic warnings of imminent disaster unless Republicans give in. This time, it’s a warning that they should ignore, unless Democrats are willing to make serious spending cuts.

— Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.


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