Let’s say you want government to be smaller. Let’s say you think the government should do less for people and play a minimal role and so on and so forth. It’s not my bag, but I think it’s an understandable, or at least plausible, philosophical position.
The question then is, what is the best strategy? Should you work hard to convince people of your philosophical position and attempt to gradually change policy? Or should you try to force a complete government shutdown, in the hope that people will realize that government is a lot of useless bureaucracy and nonsense that they didn’t need in the first place?
The primary reason you would choose the second over the first, I think, is if you believe — or, at least, are committing to as a rhetorical position — that government literally doesn’t do anything. If the government is literally full of people doing nothing with any real impact on people’s lives, then by all means, let’s just shut the whole thing down. We’ll keep on a few essential services open (like gyms for Congress?), but once we shut off almost everything, and the world doesn’t end, people will realize that government is basically this guy:
For more on this view, we take you to Fox News correspondent John Stossel:
If the public starts noticing that life goes on as usual without all 3.4 million federal workers, we might get dangerous ideas, like doing without so much government. Politicians don’t want that….
In the U.S., Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif..) told CNN the federal government has cut so much spending that there’s just nothing left to cut: “The cupboard is bare! There’s no more cuts to make!”
What? The federal government spends almost 4 trillion dollars! The government cupboard overflows! We fund entire cabinet departments that are worse than useless.
There you have it. Worse than useless. Overall usefulness would somehow be increased if large sections of the government disappeared overnight. Any actual, visible negative impacts of the shutdown are, to Stossel, simply examples of “austerity theater” — i.e., the government is doing mean things like closing national parks and monuments, not because it is trying to save money now that Congress has turned off the funds, but in order to scare people and make government seem more important that it is.
(As evidence that the Obama administration is inflating the problems associated with government shutdown, Stossel points to some privately-managed parks and facilities on federal land that have also been closed by the Park Service. Why, wonders Stossel, do parks that don’t operate on federal funds have to be closed, too? The only rational conclusion: everything about this government shutdown is pure fakery. One might ask, if Stossel is so concerned about the federal budget and also about people getting a free ride from the government, why he doesn’t decry the very private park he uses as an example, since its operators managed to wangle a 30-year rent-free tenancy on federal land. But never mind.)
This is the Stossel/Fox line. It is apparently also the line of the several dozen Tea Party-affiliated Republican congressional representatives who are holding a gun to John Boehner’s head to keep the government closed. All those “non-essential” personnel who are off the job right now? Who cares? Worse. Than. Useless.
Reality, of course, is a little more complicated. The chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday had to put out a message assuring people that although the Commission would now be forced to essentially shutter its doors due to the shutdown,
[A]ll of our resident inspectors will remain on the job and any immediate safety or security matters will be handled with dispatch. We can — and will without hesitation — bring employees out of furlough to respond to an emergency.
But what won’t be done in the meantime?
Beginning on Thursday, we will not conduct non-emergency reactor licensing, reactor license renewal amendments, emergency preparedness exercises, reviews of design certifications or rulemaking and regulatory guidance.
Also suspended for now will be routine licensing and inspection of nuclear materials and waste licensees….
The biggest impact could be on an overhaul of the so-called “waste confidence ruling”, a regulation that allows nuclear power-plant operators to store used nuclear fuel on site for relatively long periods of time. The revision to the rule is important, because the U.S. still doesn’t [have] a central repository for its nuclear waste. To move forward, the proposed rule had to be discussed in a series of public meetings around the country. Those meetings have been cancelled until further notice.
But the larger point is simply this: the United States cannot, for any appreciable amount of time, fail to pay and utilize its nuclear regulators. A shutdown of a few weeks, and we’ll probably get by. A shutdown of six weeks? Two months? Three? If you’re an “essential worker,” how long do you keep going to work without pay? And at what point do we start feeling the absence of those who are deemed “non-essential,” but whose work is still vital to public safety?
Nuclear power is actually a really interesting example of something government should totally get out of. Not that we should just fire the NRC and hope for the best — that would be stupid. But subsidies to the nuclear industry are unpopular among both libertarians, who see them as a boondoggle supporting an unprofitable industry, and among environmentalists, who complain that renewables don’t get enough of the pie. Maybe this is a legit place for some budget-cutting!
But even if we all agreed that we should end nuclear subsidies, it’s not something you can do by turning off money overnight. The reason, of course, is that there are agreements already in place to build nuclear reactors based on those subsidies, and there are long-term energy plans that rely on nuclear power being available, and even if we brought all that to a halt as quickly as possible, the government would still have to ensure that the reactors that are shut down and the nuclear materials already being mined and processed were dealt with in a safe manner. In other words, even if we decided tomorrow to end federal nuclear power subsidies, it would take years, if not decades, for the federal government to disentangle itself from nuclear power. And of course, we wouldn’t really be clear of it for a very, very long time.
And everything the federal government does is like that. Think the Department of Education is a waste of space? Fine, but it would take time to dismantle it and devolve control to the local level. Simply turning off the tap just screws kids out of educational funding. Think people should save for retirement instead of relying on Social Security? Okay, but there are already old people who did rely on it, and who would be out on the street without it. Think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a huge mistake and we should get out as soon as possible? Okay, but you still have to do something with the hundreds of millions of pounds of military equipment we’ve taken over there in the past twelve years. None of this is simple, folks.
That is, of course, exactly why the shutdown will end soon. Because right now, the federal government is being held together by the sheer goodwill of largely-unpaid “essential” personnel. Basically, the government is being run by volunteers. (Congress itself continues to draw a check, supposedly for constitutional reasons.) But that state of affairs can’t last long.
Even wacky Tea Partiers do not seriously want to show the country what would happen if government (or even just large chunks of government) disappeared suddenly, and even if they did, Boehner wouldn’t let it happen. He may be a chickenshit who’s being bullied by his own party, but he’s also a relatively sane, moderate Republican who understands that government does some stuff.
Government has already gotten smaller. Despite John Stossel’s dismissive huffing, Nancy Pelosi is quite right: Congress has already cut the federal budget deficit in half (as a percentage of GDP) since President Obama took office. And government has shrunk at all levels — there are 718,000 fewer public sector jobs than there were five years ago.
Want to see it smaller still? Great. Write your congressman. But be enough of an adult to realize that these things take time. Asking for the government to walk away from its commitments overnight is asking for economic and social collapse.