Don't Call It a Shutdown: How the Crisis Could Still Come Back to Bite Democrats

By saying the government is closed when most of it actually isn't, good-government advocates risk undermining the public's already meager faith in the state.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Even as Congress slouches toward a budget resolution, Democrats, moderate Republicans, and others who believe government can be a force for good need to acknowledge a communications risk: that calling this crisis of governance a “government shutdown” has hurt that project. It doesn’t help to say that the government is “shut down” when, for most of what people think of as “the government,” it’s not.

After all, very little of the government ever stopped operating. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York, for example, found a source on the Senate Budget Committee who estimated that, measured in dollars spent, “83 percent of government operations will continue.” (And this was before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recalled 350,000 furloughed workers.)

So it’s really been a “17 percent government shutdown,” York concluded, which may help explain why “the effects of the shutdown, beyond some of the most visible problems, like at the monuments and memorials on the Washington Mall, don't seem to have the expected intensity.”

That lack of “expected intensity”—at least over the course of a few weeks’ time—makes sense: The U.S. military is still on watch around the globe; Social Security checks are still being deposited; TSA workers and air-traffic controllers are still keeping air travel safe. And state and local services like the DMV and public schools are of course unaffected. Were the shutdown to drag on for months, it’s likely that we’d start to see much more of a disruption, but for now, things are mostly stable.

Those who dig deeper know there are many important programs disrupted by that missing 17 percent. Mike Konczal laid out in the Washington Post recently some of the “‘non-essential’ parts of government” that “are actually quite essential”:

  • Offices that gather economic data crucial to regulating the economy and trade;
  • Social assistance programs, such as TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) and WIC (nutritional aid for Women, Infants, and Children), that provide desperately-needed support to our poorest fellow citizens;
  • Public health workers who help track food-borne illnesses and other infectious disease outbreaks;
  • The EPA divisions who clean up 505 Superfund hazardous waste sites;
  • All kinds of scientific and technological research.

Konczal concludes, "[I]t is easy to miss this [part of the] state. It sits in the background, showing important results in what doesn’t happen (outbreaks), in what happens on far better terms (trade), or what doesn’t pay off for some time to come (investments and research) .… However if you are part of the current conservative movement, which finds these functions illegitimate for a state to carry out, this disruption is bonus.”

He's absolutely right. It’s a big problem for progressives that many of the valuable investments government makes are invisible to most Americans unless we’re unlucky enough to be on WIC, live next to a Superfund site, or obsess over monthly economic0statistics reports (even if those of us who are obsessed with those statistics reports have a delusional tendency to project this malady onto others).

And we also know that it has been politically helpful in the short term for Democrats to cast Tea Party Republicans’ budget hostage-taking as a reckless and extreme threat to both our national well-being and our constitutional system (as indeed that hostage-taking is). Saying that House Republicans are forcing us to temporarily suspend approximately 17 percent of government operations just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

But there’s a less obvious but very real risk in actively messaging to people that the government is “shut down” when most of it is not shut down. That’s the kind of talk that makes people think their tax money really is wasted—that all it does is fund a few memorials and monuments and national parks—and leads to all kinds of “keep your government hands off my Medicare”-ism. It’s a way of describing the situation that allows opponents of the government to taunt: If these employees are so evidently “non-essential,” why do we need them in the first place?

Presented by

Michael Zuckerman

Michael Zuckerman is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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