Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Blog

By Isaac Levey
Legal Fellow

Well, here we are. As of this writing, it’s about 3 PM, Washington, D.C. time, and nine hours away from a government shutdown. Something might happen today, and you can follow the Washington Post’s live updates here if you need up-to-the-second information, but a resolution doesn’t seem likely today. At 11:59 PM tonight – barring a last-second agreement between both Houses of Congress and the President, which seems quite unlikely – the Government of the United States will run out of money.

This requires me to make a difficult (but all too common) confession for a blogger: I was wrong. Two weeks ago, I predicted we wouldn’t get here. I thought a government shutdown would be averted, even though we’d come far closer than necessary. It now appears that, for at least the next day or two, we will have a shutdown. That term isn’t entirely accurate, because the Federal Government won’t be totally suspended on October 1. Services that are deemed “essential” will continue running, and these include issues important to politically powerful or popular groups: social security checks will keep going out; American soldiers will keep getting paid. So will top-level staff members in all the congressional and executive offices. But many Government services, and regulatory departments, will shut down. We will see, in essence, a far more drastic version of the sequestration already in effect.

The issue that has pushed us to this brink – the sticking point in the negotiations between the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the President – is, of course, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Republicans – at least those in the House – have insisted that any bill funding the Government must defund, or at least delay, the implementation of the President’s healthcare bill. They are literally saying that if they don’t do away with a law that’s already on the books (i.e., not a new proposal for legislation, or a suggested change that Congress is arguing over, but something that actually already is the law), they’ll force the lights to go out in a large portion of the Federal Government. And as I discussed in more detail in my earlier post, this intransigence may have catastrophic consequences if they push it so far as to bring us close to defaulting on our loan obligations.

But we’re not at default yet; for now, we’re just on the brink of a government shutdown. And one of the reasons we’re likely to go over that cliff is because people seem to be okay with that. That’s because the costs of shutdown won’t be borne by the population as a whole, or even by a cohesive group large enough to force political change. The federal activities most Americans come directly in contact with – Social Security; Medicare; air-traffic control; the post office; etc. – will likely continue largely unabated. It’s the regulatory agencies, which make the vast majority of actual federal law, but which we don’t see or think about in our daily lives, which will get killed by this manufactured crisis. And it’s their hard-working employees, federal civil servants and dedicated policymakers, who will find themselves furloughed, laid off, or sometimes even required to work without pay. In past shutdowns Congress has appropriated backpay for workers after government operations resumed, but that doesn’t seem likely this time.

No one speaks for those federal employees. They don’t have the political sway or voting power of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which prevents any serious discussion of changes to Social Security or Medicare. Federal workers don’t vote as a bloc – indeed, many live in the District of Columbia and can’t vote at all – so their influence on Capitol Hill is minimal. And their cause isn’t politically advantageous, like the cause of soldiers or veterans. People view them, and far too many lawmakers of both parties wrongly portray them, as lazy bureaucrats, rather than competent technocrats. By shutting the Government down, while giving no voice to the people who do so much of the actual governing, we do nothing but encourage bright, talented, dedicated American patriots to leave government service and enter the private sector. That’s the lesson we’ll teach the people who serve our nation if we continue down this path: don’t work too hard for us, because we sure won’t step up to the plate for you.

This is why a Government shutdown should matter to people beyond Washington insiders. And this is why the effort not to fund the Federal Government, over nothing more than a complaint about a duly enacted federal law, is so despicable.

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