The ongoing shutdown of most federal agencies may have a silver lining after all. Since before Christmas nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments have been essentially closed or forced to operate with reduced staff, leaving 800,000 federal employees unpaid. The consequences for the public are proving to be enlightening.
For forty years we have been bombarded with political rhetoric about an overbearing government intruding into every aspect of our lives and undermining our innovative spirit. Ronald Reagan gets credit for initiating the onslaught, famously saying, “Government is not the answer. Government is the problem.” And Bill Clinton piled on in his 1996 State of the Union address declaring the “the era of big government is over.”
Deregulating and making government smaller has been the almost universal message of both Republicans and Democrats. The shutdown, however, is offering a broad array of opportunities for ordinary Americans to gain new insights as to the role of government in our everyday lives. It may lead to a reassessment of such political pontificating.
As result of the shutdown’s impact on the Food and Drug Administration inspections of our food supply and evaluations of proposed drugs for combating disease or chronic illness are restricted. The Agriculture Department is hampered in monitoring the safety of our meat, poultry and egg production. Also, subsidy payments to farmers suffering losses as result of the trade conflict with China are on hold and agricultural statistical data needed by farmers for future planning is not available.
A variety of services supporting US business and trade activities are on hold or have been significantly reduced. For example, the Commerce Department has suspended collection and publication of data related to our domestic economy and international trade.
Access to the National Parks and the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC, have been restricted and in some cases eliminated. A few states concerned with the impact on tourism have actually taken over park maintenance. Since a significant source of park funding is visitor fees, the shutdown is a double whammy.
The quality of our air and of our water supply are at risk because funding for the Environmental Protection Agency has been suspended, and protection for consumers from monopolistic and other fraudulent business practices cannot be provide without appropriations for the Justice Department. Failure to fund the Securities and Exchange Commission limits oversight of the stock market and prevents approval of new corporations.
Landlords who rent to tenants receiving rental assistance from Housing and Urban Development will not be paid while the shutdown continues and the processing of home mortgages for many middle income Americans will be delayed. The impact of the shutdown on the Internal Revenue Service means fewer audits and more revenue losses to tax cheats.
Ironically, even though the stated objective of the standoff is “border security,” some of the most severe reductions in governmental services are being imposed on the Department of Homeland Security. Employees in the Coast Guard, Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Transportation Security Administration, US Citizenship and Immigration Services and Federal Emergency Management Agency are all impacted by the shutdown. Most are still working but without pay and unable to provide a full range of protections.
Significantly, DHS has furloughed, meaning they are not allowed to work even without pay, nearly half of the staff of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. So much for keeping an eye on terrorists sneaking across the Southern border.
When the US was founded it consisted of thirteen states with a total population of less than 4 million occupying 865,000 square miles. New York City was the country’s largest city with approximately 33,000 residents. Charleston, SC, was the fourth largest municipality with roughly 16,000. In the primarily rural society of 1790, self-sufficiency was an important and achievable value.
Over 320 million people live in the nearly 4 million square miles that make up the US today. That includes the 50 states, District of Columbia and several territorial “possessions” (which as advocates of self-determination we try to ignore). New York City is still the largest city with more than twice as many people as lived in 1790’s America.
There are still rural areas, but most Americans today live in cities or suburbs in close vicinity of urban centers. Rubbing elbows with our neighbors sometimes causes friction, but it is unavoidable. Under the circumstances the concept of “small government” is a dangerous and mindless illusion, and economically, self-sufficiency is no longer an option, much less a value.
Just how interwoven government’s responsibilities and services are in our everyday lives is being revealed in the shutdown. Effective and representative government is clearly essential to our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the modern world. Maybe we’ll remember that when the next election rolls around.