How America Has Paid for Republican Nihilism

Radical lawmakers don't want good, limited government—they want to blow it all up. The result is hurting all of us.
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Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Warning: I am going to vent again. I write this before the final votes on the Senate package, but after the House Republicans careened from one farce to another, and after another ratings agency, Fitch, threatened a U.S. credit downgrade based on the same compelling logic as Standard & Poor’s in 2011—that the real concern is not default but our extraordinary political dysfunction. I thought about yet another column on this process, but realized that it would be both repetitive and untimely. So I will vent about something else.

The costs of the prolonged government shutdown are broad and deep. They are there in national security and homeland security. The tough sanctions we have in place against Iran are not being fully enforced; many of the government employees who monitor violations and ensure the sanctions are in place are furloughed. Support personnel who help on homeland and national security are not there. With National Institutes of Health scientists barred from their labs, the lab animals used in critical medical-research experiments are left to their own devices; those who were in the middle of experiments or trials cannot be monitored, rendering the research useless or setting it back by months. The multiple private businesses tied to tourism at national parks—restaurants, hotels, gift shops, river guides, grocery stores—are devastated. And on and on. The hit on the economy, via less spending, will reduce our next quarter’s economic growth by a noticeable amount, made more noticeable because it is occurring at a time of economic stagnation.

Then there are the human costs. Some government employees have enough savings to carry them through weeks of no pay. But large numbers, like so many in the private sector, live from paycheck to paycheck or have a very thin safety net. NPR’s Morning Edition recently did a poignant piece on a career employee at the Bureau of Prisons who is working (every employee at the prison is essential, for obvious reasons) but getting no pay except for a pending check for the week before the shutdown occurred. He estimated his normal biweekly take-home pay at $1,300—but the one-week check he will get will have full deductions taken out for the two weeks, leaving him with roughly $200. He has two kids in college and asked host Steve Inskeep, “How am I going to pay my bills? What am I going to do for child care? How do I put fuel in the truck? I mean, I have a pickup truck. I live in southwestern PA. You know, it’s $80 to fill that tank. There’s a whole range of things and the thing is, you can’t just call off. If you call off, you’re messing with the person that’s on shift right now. He can’t go home.”

This government worker will ultimately receive his back pay. But he and numerous others, including many who make much less, including many Capitol Police applauded by members of Congress after the harrowing October 4 chase and shooting, may have to lose money by dipping into savings, maxing out on credit cards and paying exorbitant interest, or going to payday lenders. Those costs will never be paid back—and they are the people who can least afford it. Then there are the tens of thousands of people working for government contractors who have to lay off employees without pay. They will never get paid back for the work they miss.

Damaging as the shutdown is for governance, it is minor compared with the long-term damage of the sequester. The FBI has had to reduce its focus on white-collar and organized crime to deal with the higher, immediate priority of cybersecurity. The food-inspection infrastructure has been hit, reducing the number of inspectors in the U.S. and in foreign plants that ship food to the United States. This will undoubtedly lead to more outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli, with a weakened Centers for Disease Control less able to cope with the epidemics. Basic research, as I have written before, is taking devastating hits—starting with NIH but including DARPA and every other area done primarily by the federal government. Some of the damage will never be repaired. And the nation’s economy will grow more slowly, adding to our deficits and debt.

I was amused this week to see George F. Will’s column, headlined online “The Sequester: The Hammer Republicans Hold.” Will wrote approvingly, “All House Republicans should understand that the victory won in the summer of 2011—the sequester, achieved by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—still torments Democrats.” But just a few weeks ago, Will had written a column titled “The Sequester’s a Public Health Hazard.” In it he said, “NIH scientists seek intensely practical, meaning preventive and therapeutic, things that can save society more than any sequester can.” Will is smart enough to hold these two views simultaneously; he is much smarter than the House Republicans who laud the sequester without a second’s concern about health research, damage to defense infrastructure, or a decline in port inspections and border patrols.

The denigration of public employees—typified by Rep. Darrell Issa’s vitriol directed at the IRS and Rep. Randy Neugebauer’s verbal assault on a park ranger for her work (without pay) at the World War II Memorial, which was shut down because of Neugebauer and his colleagues—represents a phenomenon that is not new but is really awful: the radicalization of so many lawmakers who don’t want limited, but good, government but instead want to blow the whole thing up. They may know not what they do, but sadly, they have the weapons to do it.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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