Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | The Myth of the Government Shutdown

Entry Log 0036, Government Shutdown, Day 3:

I’m stationed outside a closed US federal government building in Washington, DC. A lone stoplight just turned from green to red. A man in a suit has just walked into the side door from a car parked on the side. According to my smartphone, the Library of Congress website is still down, as is the Panda Camera at the National Zoo. The fiends! First the pandas, what next? The first lady’s twitter account?

Apparently we’re in the middle of a full-blown government shutdown. I don’t believe a word of it. Last time I checked, we still have active military forces deployed around the world, the federal courts are running, the FAA is still running air traffic control towers. Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray declared all of the District of Columbia “essential” in order to avoid the shutdown. We still have enough congressional staff for Harry Reid’s office to leak emails from Speaker Boehner to the press. And even though the Giant Panda camera isn’t working at the National Zoo, they’re apparently still accepting donations.

The federal government is alive and well, media hype aside, and I, for one, am starting to get a bit irritated by the political grandstanding occurring in the wake of this government shutdown (such as the shutting down of the First Lady’s free twitter account).

A Local Solution?

For one thing, all the political grandstanding, op-eds about Obamacare, and howling about national monuments get in the way of one pretty big question – why are so many of the federal government’s operations essential for our nation to continue running?

Now I understand that there are certain legitimate things the government must do in order to keep order in society. Air traffic controllers, for example, are a pretty big deal. So is the military.

But as I was perusing agency shutdown plans earlier today, I noticed this ridiculous bit from the Department of Education. “The department will still distribute $22 billion to public schools that is normally obligated on Oct. 1,” and, “other grant programs that use previously appropriated dollars will continue, including Race to the Top…”

There is a serious problem with this. It isn’t so much that $22 billion is being distributed despite a mandatory shutdown ordered by federal law. It’s not so much that the federal government is continuing to grant loans despite being completely out of money.  The problem is that it actually is essential for the Department of Education to distribute this money if we want our nation’s current education system to continue running.

The list continues. The Department of Energy is running power plants. The FDA and Department of Agriculture are continuing a number of their oversight responsibilities. Their operations, unfortunately, have become essential, given the widespread encroachments of the federal government into the private sphere. Our nation cannot, by law, continue to run without an expansive bureaucratic behemoth stopping by to check on us.

This is a problem. Conservatives have traditionally held that the best governance occurs at the local level. That’s why we had a tenth amendment to our nation’s constitution. Russell Kirk perhaps put the reason for it best, “In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily.” A nation is only as strong as its communities. American democracy is based on consent of the governed, and the movement of power from local governments to a centralized authority reduces the citizen’s ability to have a genuine say in his governance. Instead, it makes him into a solitary, ineffective voice in the mass movements of American politics. He participates in abstract bureaucratic “democracy,” not genuine cooperative citizenship.

It should be disconcerting, then, to see the difficulty in bringing about a genuine shutdown of the federal government. I, for one, would like to see some genuine federalism brought back to play.

During the 1995 government shutdown, something interesting happened. While all the National Parks started shutting down, the south rim of the Grand Canyon stayed open. Why? Because the state of Arizona offered to foot the bill to keep it running. Maybe the rest of the country should follow suit.

By Nick Barden
Picture by buteos, from Flickr.

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