The governmental shutdown had a number of unexpected consequences. One of the more important, in our opinion, is that it elevated the visibility and importance of what the government does or does not do in the mind of the American public.
It also demonstrated that while the government may not be the solution to all of our problems, it is not always the problem that some would have us believe. Indeed, as evidenced by the reactions and responses to the shutdown, in many ways and in many areas government has been and is the answer.
As early as three days into the shutdown, a CBS news poll disclosed that more than 70% of Americans disapproved of shutting down the federal government. A little more than a week into the shutdown, Gallup released a report showing that “government and elected representatives” was the most important problem facing the country “surpassing the economy (named by 19% of respondents) as the nation’s top problem.” According to Gallup, “the percentage of Americans who mention some aspect of government leadership has doubled, 33% this month from 16% last month.”
The partial shutdown shone a bright light on what were deemed to be essential versus non-essential government agencies and positions. The areas/agencies fully open included: active duty military, Social Security Administration, and individual congressional offices. The areas/agencies that were completely closed included: Export Import Bank of the United States, National Science Foundation, and Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. Most areas/agencies fell into the partially closed category. A total of more than 800,000 were furloughed for a period of time because of the shutdown.
Early on during the shutdown, Republican leaders in the House tried to muster support forbills to fund agencies and areas individually and selectively. The areas they chose to shine their light on included: veterans affairs programs, national parks and museums, Washington D.C. city government, military reserves and the National Guard, and medical research at the National Institutes of Health.
The House piecemeal efforts were unsuccessful and on October 16, the shutdown ended with a whimper and not a bang. One would hope that the 16 day shutdown would be the basis for a “teachable moment” regarding the positive role and major contributions of the federal government to America and Americans. And, it will be for some but not for others.
The Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution as a firm but flexible platform upon which future generations could improve and the nation could be built. They accomplished this by establishing a delicate balance among individuals, the states, and the federal government. This balance, with the federal government as the linchpin, enabled the United States to grow and to prosper as a great nation – a nation that operates at the intersection of capitalism and community, individualism and the common good, and being and becoming.
The federal government has been, is, and will be pivotal to America’s success. Unfortunately, some (maybe many) do not see or realize this. They view the federal government at best as a necessary evil and at worst as a beast that should be starved or killed.
This perspective is a flummoxing one in that it denies the inextricable role that the federal government has played in making the American democracy the greatest and the country one of the most financially successful in the history of the world. Dennis Johnson provides a scholar’s viewpoint on this in his masterful book, The Laws That Shaped America: 15 Acts of Congress and Their Lasting Impact.
Johnson says, “What guided me in selecting these fifteen laws, was the answer to this simple question: “Where would we be without this law?” How would America’s elderly fare without the security of health care and social insurance? How congested and dangerous would our surface transportation system be without the backbone of the interstate highway system?….Each of these fifteen laws had a lasting impact on American society and history, and has had consequences far beyond its enactment.
Johnson observes that fifteen laws was not a magic number. He said he could have picked more or even another fifteen – but the ones he chose to highlight appealed to him.
Not all are blind to government’s contributions. In his book Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America and Why It Must Rebuild It Now written in 2009, Financier Felix Rohatyn spotlights large and transformative events that contributed to America’s growth including: The Louisiana Purchase, The Erie Canal, and Lincoln’s support of the transcontinental railroad.
Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in their book, That Used to Be Us, quote Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric as follows, “We worship false idols in terms of the power of a free market. The U.S. government has been the catalyst for change for generations.”
It’s not just the large things. It’s the smaller things as well. The shutdown highlighted many of them such as maintaining national parks, regulating fishing, and paying death benefits to the families of deceased members of the military.
Alan Gitelson, Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Chicago, makes the point on the pivotal role that government plays in our lives in a lecture that he gives to his freshmen students early in his PLSC 101 course. Professor Gitelson asks the students to reflect on and imagine a normal day during the school year.
The day begins with the alarm going off at 5:30 a.m. on a cell phone or radio powered by electricity or batteries regulated by the government. The student gets up and brushes his or her teeth and rinses with clean and pure water delivered by a public utility, sits down and eats a breakfast of oatmeal that is uncontaminated because it is monitored by the Food and Drug Administration; gets dressed and puts on a wind breaker (certified flame retardant) to brave the Chicago winter; leaves the apartment and either hops on a bus or gets into a car and gets onto an expressway that is supported with federal funds. Arrives at the first class and sits down in the lecture hall at the college that she or he is attending with tuition partially paid for with a student loan – All of this before 8 a.m. in the morning.
In spite of the almost universal but invisible contributions of the government and ringing endorsements from many, there is a large and influential group of elected American officials and citizens, who refuse to acknowledge or accept the fact that government has been a partner – and in many instances taken the lead – in creating and or maintaining the playing field for American businesses and citizens.
Immediately after the shutdown ended, the most conservative element of the Republican Party went on the attack again against so-called “Obama Care” blaming the failure of the October 1 launch on everything and everyone. And, there was definitely enough deserved blame to go around and appears there will be for some time into the future.
We do not quarrel with the right to criticize the problems in and related to the administration of the Affordable Care Act and other areas in which the federal government is ineffective and inefficient. We do quarrel, however, with seeing only one side of the picture and not taking a “fair and balanced” approach to assessing the organization and operations of government – along with rights should come responsibilities.
Over the past three years, there has been virtually nothing but blame emanating from the conservative echo chamber regarding all things governmental. There has indeed been a growing deficit and debt problem within this group in this time period.
But, it’s not of the financial type, however. It has been a recognition deficit of the thousands of things that the government does to make our lives better and it has been a failure to pay the debt of gratitude owed to those hundreds of thousands of government employees who deliver those services which protect and sustain us.
If the shutdown should have taught us one thing, it is this. There is such a thing as good government. Realizing this – it is time, past time, for more credit and less blame for that government and those who work in it.