Be glad your government is open for business
Dispatches from the south
There is no better symbolic end to 2018 for the United States than to crash out of the year with a non-functioning government. Yep, our government is shut down because our Congress and our president can’t agree that they should pay for it.
There are at least three weird things about this shutdown.
One is that it is happening at all. Most governments regard it as crucial to continue to pay their employees to do their jobs so they have some provision in case there is an impasse of some sort. Many countries continue to fund things at current levels. Canada does a version of this. But since the U.S. has no such provision, fighting about the budget has become a perennial and very useful bludgeon for the two parties to beat each other up with.
The Democrats are generally considered more vulnerable to this sort of “persuasion.” Their argument is that the government serves needed purposes and that we need it to function well. Vulnerable people - the young, poorer old people, minorities, students, single parents, women - have typically been more aligned with the Democratic party. The Republican position on the other hand has largely been that we have too much government, that we pay too much in taxes. So, if no national tragedies result from a shutdown, in a way, it implies that Republicans are right. We don’t need that much government.
There are two things wrong with that logic. There might not be an immediate national catastrophe, but there are innumerable human-scale catastrophes resulting from the government not working. Moreover, the government has (to this point) always paid back wages and other unmet bills later. This often costs considerably more if, for example, a contract was violated and late fees come due. Estimates are that shutdowns cost between 20 and 30% more than business as usual.
We do this so often that we’ve actually developed a set of rules to allow only part of the government to shut down while "essential services” continue. Some “essential” workers, like those in the Army, continue to get paid. Others, like Those Lovely TSA Agents At The Airport That We All Know And Love, they’re required to work but aren’t getting paychecks. Maybe they’ll get back pay. Eventually. But their rents and mortgages and Christmas bills are due. Today.
Another thing that’s weird is that this is actually the third shutdown this year. This particular one is because Trump is demanding funding for his southern border wall. Never mind that two-thirds of Americans don’t want the wall. Or that a third of those who want the wall don’t want it badly enough to shut down the government to get it.
We’ve been shutting down the government more and more frequently over the decades, using more and more drastic measures to try to “win” against the other side. That’s to be expected, as we have become increasingly divided by party more than anything else. Congress and the president used to agree on twoyear budgets, but no more, as that means they can’t use the budget as a weapon in between. Lately, we’ve been funding essential components of our budget on a three-month basis, sometimes less, before wading back into this ridiculous fray.
What's especially strange is that both Congress and the president come from the same party. We normally only have shutdowns when the president is from one party and the majority in Congress is from the other. Considering the different priorities of the parties, that makes some sense. But this president can’t persuade enough people from his own party to back him on his demand for enormous funding for a border wall, much less the few Democrats it would take.
You want to know which Republicans generally hate the idea? Yep, you guessed it, Republicans from the border states the wall would be planted in. The wall is less popular the closer you get to Mexico, and more popular the farther away you are. That tells you something. It’s not about protecting scared, imperiled people fearing an open border. People in border states want the border more open than it is. A lot more open. Even Republicans.
So, for now, if your neighbours to the south want to go to a national park or a museum, or if they wanted to visit a prisoner in a federal prison over the holidays, or something happens to their social security check and they need to fix the error, or if they are worried the factory up the river is dumping chemicals, there is no one to answer the phone. But guess who keeps getting their paychecks? The senators. The congress people. And the president.