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?

This risk in calling a fractional shutdown a shutdown is one piece of what should be a bigger concern for everyone who believes in public programs: the fact that we often underachieve in exactly the places where everyday Americans interact with government most.

Sure, the roughly $6 trillion we spend at the federal, state, and local levels each year buys a lot of goods and services. But which of those goods and services do we see every day? What do we interact with that we think of as “government”? For most of us, it’s the DMV, the IRS, occasionally the police—and maybe a few other public programs or services, depending on who you are. If you’re a small business owner, e.g., it may be the SBA. If you’re a veteran, it may be the VA.

Though academics argue over the myriad sources of citizens’ (record-breakingly low) trust in government and their (divided) belief in the importance of government action, surely one of the major drivers must be our judgment of the stuff we actually see. If the DMV comprises one-third of your interactions with government and the DMV comes across as incompetent, you are not crazy if you extrapolate that the government is at least one-third incompetent. If the “government is shut down” and your life goes on uninterrupted, you are not crazy to conclude that the government must not do very much.

Political campaigns know this by heart. They understand the importance of meeting people where they are and touching them individually with phone calls, field offices, personalized emails, sparkling websites, social media, and, at their best, neighborhood teams of volunteers. Campaigns know that we judge, at least in part, based on what we see.

This is why, for example, it’s unconscionable that the Department of Health and Human Services was not able, with a lot of lead time, to construct a workable website for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Very few Americans, after all, are scholars of the individual mandate; very few of us will ever read the 906-page law. What we see is what we know. And if we see an awful website, we are not crazy to extrapolate that the whole program is awful.

When it comes to the so-called shutdown, what many of us have seen thus far is some shuttered national parks, a few closed monuments, and ongoing squabbling in D.C.—in other words, business as usual. That’s because most of what government does, it’s still doing. If life for most people goes on as before, we only make government sound worthless when we speak as if it’s been closed down.

None of this means that proponents of a robust federal government should seek to make every spending gap into an all-out catastrophe, forcing all government programs to go dark just to prove a point; there have, after all, been 17 of these things since 1976, many of which occurred in a much less polarized environment than today’s. Since it’s unlikely this one will be the last, it’s wise to continue to protect ourselves against the anarchy of a full-scale shutdown.

Instead, we need to be a bit less apocalyptic in our messaging and a lot more attentive to the work of government that people do see—explaining in the short-term that funding lapses like this one interfere with important investments and hurt real people, while demonstrating over the longer-term the importance and efficacy of a fully-functioning, fully-funded state.

Americans don’t interact with government all that much these days. We owe it to them, and to the institution itself, to make it clear—and make it count—when they do.