The last major partial government shutdown took place in 2013. It was reviled by many and supported by few. Conservatives who forced the shutdown over the Affordable Care Act had neither the power nor the support to get their way. Their poor strategy gained little and lost some (including possibly the Virginia governor’s race).
In the end, it didn’t stop the ACA. It also didn’t matter to voters in the 2014 midterm elections. Contrary to political pundits’ predictions, Republicans took control of Congress.
President Donald Trump may likewise lose the current shutdown fight. He says he owns the shutdown stories percolate about TSA employees and other federal workers who face tough times without a paycheck. Until his primetime address, he had primarily focused on Twitter instead of a more comprehensive communications strategy, though his response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s SOTU pressure shows this may be changing.
Even the “emergency” Trump said he may declare is problematic. As many conservatives and Republicans have pointed out, what’s to stop a Democratic president from doing the same thing on climate change or another extra-constitutional issue? Additionally, there are many other “emergencies” in America, such as our shamefully high abortion rate.
But for those who want a better and smaller government, the shutdown has some solid benefits. Specifically:
1. The TSA charges the American people over seven billion dollars annually to sexually assault us at airports. They do this allegedly for our safety, despite not being very good at protecting us.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in 2015 that TSA screening technologies were not up to snuff. GAO also concluded in 2017 that over three-quarters of the TSA’s “revised behavior indicators … used in its behavior detection activities” aren’t based on “valid evidence.”
GAO reported that out of 178 sources used to support TSA’s behavior assessment tools, just three “could be used as valid evidence to support 8 of the 36 behavioral indicators in TSA's revised list.” Over three-quarters of the TSA’s sources were “news articles, opinion pieces, presentations…and screen shots of online medical websites that do not meet GAO’s definition of valid evidence.”
That’s some high-cost, low-quality “security theater.” Maybe it’s better that the TSA folks stay home. The American people might realize that we’re pretty safe without having our butts and breasts stroked.
The fact is that at least 80 percent of the federal budget is still being spent. CBS noted that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are still spending. Those three programs comprised almost half of the 2018 federal budget.
Defense spending (other than the Coast Guard), interest on the national debt, and veterans’ care are likewise unaffected. (Interest always gets paid. Without it, we’d default on our debt.)
This quick calculation shows how little of the federal government is “shut down.” Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security (47 percent of the budget in 2018), interest (about 12.8 percent in 2018), defense (14 percent in 2018), and veterans’ care (about 4.5 percent in 2018) are nearly 80 percent of the total federal budget. That doesn’t include other programs which The New York Times and CBS report are still spending. Select examples are the FBI, food stamp benefits, Forest Service, and the Russia investigation.
(These percentages were calculated using the dollar amounts for each budget area and dividing them by the government’s total spending in 2018.)
3. Federal employees are also consistently under discussion. Trump laughably claims many employees have supported him in the budget fight. Given that most federal employees are left-leaning, “many” is either relative to the extreme or simply untrue.
But he’s not the only one providing a misleading picture. Eight hundred thousand federal employees are reportedly unpaid right now. This is about 40 percent of the total estimated federal civilian workforce. But this number doesn’t include the 1.3 million active duty personnel. All of these people are being paid. The real rate of federal employees who are unpaid right now is about 23 percent.
Federal law does not define the military and civilian employees in the same way. However, they should be reported as combined federal employees. Their pay comes from the federal government.
Speaking of federal employees, let’s look at their perks. Lower-educated and moderately-educated federal employees tend to make more than their private-sector counterparts. Given how hard it is for a federal employee to get fired, that’s a pretty good overall situation.
Public unionization helps. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found a year ago that more than a third of public employees are unionized. That’s five times the rate of private-sector workers. Many of these employees are federal. More than 700,000 federal and District of Columbia workers are represented by one union. Another union represents 110,000 federal employees.
4. Finally, an 18 percent shutdown is a good chance to look at how we spend money. Federal spending is inefficient. Improper payments, fraud, duplication, secret sexual harassment payments by Members of Congress, “lost” money and contractor project overruns, grant programs left in the ether, and more waste hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
Some conservatives are pointing to how life goes on without much of the expensive D.C. bureaucracy. They are right. But we don’t need politically partisan debates. Instead, taxpayers and lawmakers of all stripes should strip the federal government of all dollars which don’t go to where they are legally required. That would benefit everyone. And it would be a good exercise at a time when everyone suddenly is an expert on the federal budget.
In the end, I agree with the conventional punditry. Trump is going to bail. His bluster will end. The shutdown will end. The wall will not and should not be built. And most Americans will go on with our lives, hopefully wiser and ready for a smaller, more accountable government.
If we don’t, that’s on us. It’s not on liberals or the politicians. We had an opportunity to excise the fat from the feds, and failed. And our country will continue to burn money like it grows on trees, plowing us into deficit and debt oblivion as our border policies continue to benefit politicians and corporations instead of the rest of us.