When budget negotiations come down to the wire – sorry, I mean the “Continuing Resolution” negotiations, since we haven’t had an actual budget in forty years – the Democrats always use the same mantra: “Those Wascally Wepublicans are forcing a government shutdown!”
As if we should all be shaking in our boots at the prospect of the federal government shutting down for an hour, let alone a few days, or even a week or two.
But should we really worry, and should we really hold the more adult party – the only one, after all, actually trying to RESOLVE our deficit and debt problems – responsible for the shutdown, as the Democrats hope a terrified public will do?
Or mightn’t it really be a good thing, albeit in disguise, because finally there’s something that forces both sides to the negotiating table, after yet another year of kicking the can down the road, in an environment of “business as usual” politics?
If the entire government WERE in fact shutting down – if, for example, air traffic controllers, the ICBM site network, and the armed forces – were all going to stand down, unavailable to secure the skies and our borders, then we would indeed have reason to fear. But it isn’t. Our essential government services don’t shut down in a “federal government shutdown” – only our non-essential services do.
And what, pray tell, are they?
The National Parks
Well, there’s the National Park Service.
Now, I’m not going to say that these parks don’t matter. They’re nice.
I took my family to the NPS-operated Ulysses S. Grant House in St. Louis a few years ago, and our tour guide was among the best I’ve ever heard. 25 years earlier, my parents and I enjoyed a memorable trip to Yellowstone, and seeing Old Faithful spout off was indeed rather cool.
But if the Grant house is closed, there’s a privately operated Grant Farm across the street, and plenty of other private tourist attractions all over St. Louis that a family can visit instead.
If Yellowstone is closed, there are also plenty of other things to do in the region; I remember the Wall Drug Store, the Black Hills, and the Remington Museum in Cody, just as fondly as I remember our day at Yellowstone on that same trip. The American people can live without the NPS for a few days, if it helps to solve our budget crisis.
In fact, perhaps the most valuable point to remember in all this is that the National Park Service didn’t even exist until 1916, at the end of Woodrow Wilson’s first term. You realize what that means, don’t you? This country survived through 27 presidencies without any National Park Service at all, and the country did just fine, didn’t it?
The Smithsonian Museums
And of course there’s the great tourist destination known as the Smithsonian. This includes an entire network of museums and research facilities in and around Washington, D.C., along with the National Zoo.
Most museums in the United States – including the most famous ones – are privately operated, by non-profit organizations that are at least mostly independent of their local governments. But not the Smithsonian complex. So when the government is in shutdown mode, tourists have to find something else to do in Washington.
That’s a bit of an inconvenience for a few thousand people per day, true. But when you compare it to the inconvenience of a nation of three hundred million – a nation in perpetual debt, mind you – it’s not much of a sacrifice to ask of a few school groups and tourists, is it? After all, there’s still a heck of a lot to do and see, in and around Washington D.C., from churches to private historic sites like Mount Vernon, even without the Smithsonian complex to visit.
And the Smithsonian was only founded in 1846, after a decade of typical Washington wrangling over how exactly to best utilize Mr. Smithson’s legacy. The nation somehow made it seventy years – from Declaration of Independence to the summer when President Polk signed the implementation bill at last – and we even flourished, before that National Museum came to be.
If we lived without them for seventy years, we could live without them for a few weeks.
The Food and Drug Administration
This is the sort of thing that starts to scare people. In a shutdown, the FDA would reduce its routine inspections, though it would still manage its high risk food and drug recall operations, in the unlikely event that any surface during the shutdown. (Meat and poultry inspections, the type that most people consider most critical for public safety, are actually managed by the USDA, and would not be affected in the least).
So even in case of a federal shutdown, the part of the FDA that’s really important wouldn’t be affected. Only the routine inspections, the paper pushing, the molasses-slow approval processes, would be interrupted. Remember, the FDA doesn’t make the drugs, the foods, or the beverages on which we depend. That agency just inspects it, and reviews forms, and occasionally visits a facility. Not to cast aspersions on the validity of periodic audits to keep a company on its toes, but we do sometimes forget that it’s the private sector that produces our foods and medicines, not the federal suits whose primary output is producing permission slips or impediments.
It already takes years to obtain FDA approval for a new drug; in that context, would a few days’ interruption really matter in the least? FDA new product reviews are already interrupted when the lead scientist, lead agent, or lead bureaucrat goes on vacation, retires, or transfers; there are already gaps of days, weeks, or months in which no progress is made, and we don’t raise a fuss (who would dare?). We’ll survive a shutdown here too, and the odds are that nobody will notice a thing out of the ordinary.
The Bureaucracy of the Leviathan
But the FDA example does lead us into the area that merits attention. The FDA has only existed since 1906. The nation survived a hundred nineteen years, from the signing of the Constitution until the formation of this particular tentacle of the leviathan, and we did pretty well without it. We expanded from thirteen states hugging the Atlantic coastline to forty-five states traversing a continent, and we did it all without a Food and Drug Administration. To hear the Chicken Littles squawk today, one wonders how on earth we managed it.
But manage it we did. Without a huge federal government to hold us back with taxes and regulations and forms – from licenses to permits to “paperwork reduction act notices” – we expanded until we became a world power, and eventually the world power, the dream destination of every immigrant on earth seeking his Goldeneh Medina and a chance for his children to have a future.
This economy was never perfect; there were charlatans and monopolists in the marketplace, against which the simple rule of Caveat Emptor might not provide sufficient protection. All of us today acknowledge the need for some of the basic regulations that the twentieth century spawned.
But even as we acknowledge that Caveat Emptor is not enough, so too must we admit that the reflexive exclamation “There oughta be a law” goes too far.
So many have said “There oughta be a law” – day in and day out, from coast to coast, over the past century – that we now have thousands of regulations on every imaginable issue, from the number of hours a trucker must sleep between shifts, to the gallons-per-minute flow of a showerhead, from the exact number of feet one must park behind a driveway, to the exact height of the mirrors in an ADA-compliant office building.
Thousands of rules that would never gain enough supporters to get out of a Congressional committee are issued on a daily basis by independent functionaries who work for civil service lifers in acronym factories like FDA, F&W, EPA, DOE, APHIS and PHMSA. Even the worthy technocrats – and yes, there still are worthy bureaucrats who generate worthwhile rules from those acronym factories – are so outnumbered by their redundant, pointless, and destructive agencies that it becomes difficult to avoid lumping the useful and honorable ones in with the rest. What do you do with the fresh peach found in a barrel of rotting ones? You throw them all out together, fairly or no.
The fact is, when we have a government shutdown these days, we aren’t overwhelmed by the changes to our daily lives. The new regulations are interrupted for a few days, but the torrent will soon return. The museums and zoo are closed, but they’ll open up again. In the meantime, the nation will survive, and maybe even thrive.
Our federal government is now the nation’s largest employer. It has slowly grown over the past hundred years, like a food addict who sits down at a diner and orders the entire left side of the menu, meal after meal, year after year. We get so few chances to remember that so much of what this bloated government consumes and produces is empty calories, even destructive calories… that in fact the limited but real nutrition of our government’s worthwhile activities is utterly overwhelmed by fat, sugar and artery-clogging cholesterol… the fat of a bloated bureaucracy, the sugar of costly and disincentivising entitlements, and the arterial plaque of a crushing web of applications and approvals that stymie economic progress.
Why is America five years into this “non-recession non-recovery,” with a real unemployment rate over 20%, with minority youth unemployment over 50%, with foreclosures and impoverishment still skyrocketing?
Why? Because the growth of the leviathan has finally reached critical mass… because the monstrosity of Obamacare pushed the nation over the brink of the possible and into the chasm of the impossible. We finally exceeded the tipping point at which even the wonderful economic engine of the United States simply could no longer compete with the drag of hundreds of thousands of pages of Federal Register holding it back.
There is only one way out, only one way to escape this stagnant Obama economy and return to prosperity, and that’s to start trimming back the size and scope of the federal government.
If a federal shutdown of a few days… or a few weeks… or even a few months… is necessary to get the point across and starting letting loose the dead weight of the federal technocracy, it will indeed have been well worthwhile.
One day, in a more prosperous future, our descendents may proudly thank the courageous, principled Congressmen of 2013, who stood their ground and started to trim back the leviathan at last.
Copyright 2013 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. A former county chairman of the Milwaukee County GOP, he has now been a recovering politician for over sixteen years.
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