Hey! We’re Missing the Point on How Bad This Shutdown Thing Really Is
It is good to see politicians and journalists bringing attention to the terrible injustice of not paying federal employees during the record-breaking government shutdown. But I wish they were paying more attention to the far worse consequences of Americans being denied essential services. The President’s supporters have minimized the impact of the shutdown. Ann Coulter says that the wall on the southern border is worth more “than the Yosemite gift shop being open,” California Republican Party spokesperson Jen Kerns says Americans don’t have much sympathy for “paper-pushers,” and the President’s economic advisor tops Marie Antoinette by claiming that federal employees should be grateful for the time off without having to use vacation days.
The paper that bureaucrats push includes Social Security checks, and assures the safety of food, workplaces, consumer products, and medications. When the government shuts down, economic and demographic data our businesses and financial markets rely on is not available. The data we use for sensitive negotiations on trade and national security is missing and so are the people who negotiate. The people who monitor and prevent cyber attacks are furloughed. Magnificent trees that have been cherished for centuries have been attacked by vandals, destroying irreplaceable treasures.
Government employees arrest, prosecute, and try those who violate the law. They conduct critical international negotiations and help American citizens abroad. Government inspectors make sure that nuclear facilities are operated safely and nuclear waste does not turn our cities into horror movie scenarios.
How did we go from President Kennedy’s “ask not what our country could do for you, but what you can do for our country” to Ronald Reagan’s “Government does not solve problems; government is the problem?”
My father was one who answered President Kennedy’s call as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He went on to work on projects for Presidents of both parties on a wide range of issues. When I graduated from law school I worked at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Jimmy Carter and the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan and I remain very proud of my time in government. The people I worked with were dedicated professionals of the highest integrity. They understood that both parties shared the same goals of a safe, strong country and that the only disagreement was the best way of achieving them.
The bogus, completely unproven idea of a “deep state” of bureaucrats pursuing goals other than the policies of the administration and Congress is particularly pernicious. In The Fifth Risk, the indispensable book about the Trump administration, Michael Lewis describes the unread briefing books dedicated government employees prepared for incoming appointees. Loyal, non-political, hardworking government staff were there to implement whatever priorities the new administration had. In many cases, there were none or the policies were turned over to lobbyists and corporate insiders.
Of course dealing with government can be cumbersome and frustrating. That is because there is so much potential for corruption and abuse. No industry is more regulated than the government itself. My father arrived at the FCC just after the broadcasters and the Commission itself had been involved in embarrassing scandals. He worked hard to make sure that would not happen again. We are now seeing what happens when administration officials ignore government ethics rules.
And government is vast and complicated. Toxic chemicals, for example, are covered by different offices, depending on whether they are being manufactured, transported, or disposed of. It takes time for the agencies involved to coordinate with each other and with the industries involved to make sure that they have all the information they need. And government employees are human, like any other working people. Were the heightened but relatable characters in “The Office” any better than the ones on “Parks and Recreation?”
Government is not perfect and government action is too often distorted by dark money. But we must all recognize that it is an honorable and vital profession and show our thanks by letting them have what they want most — a chance to do their jobs. What we could use right now is an accurate assessment of what the shutdown is costing us. Unfortunately, the people who have the access to the data necessary to produce that information are currently prohibited from doing their jobs because of the shutdown.