Across America this holiday season, families are gathering. Elder statesmen will entertain children with tales of how difficult life was in the old days. “We used to walk barefoot three miles to school in the snow” and all that. For my part, I took a bus.
But one event stands out in my life -- an earthshaking occurrence that all of us who were alive in the mid-1990s were lucky to have survived. I can’t wait to tell my grandchildren tales about the harrowing government shutdown of ’95.
For those too young to recall, because President Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress couldn’t agree on spending priorities, the federal government shut down between Dec. 16, 1995, and Jan. 6, 1996. Several hundred thousand federal employees were furloughed.
At one point during the carnage, I went to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, to walk on a popular trail along the water. But, because of the shutdown, the gate was locked and nobody was allowed in.
And, actually, that’s it. That’s the only way this shutdown touched one American’s life.
The fact is, for all its trillions in spending, the federal government is a non-factor in most of our lives. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have influence. Recently a parent in Johnson City, N.Y. prompted a federal investigation by complaining that cheerleaders performed at boys’ basketball games but not at girls’ games. Washington relishes doing silly things such as counting cheerleaders.
But on a day-to-day basis, few of us know or care whether the federal government is operating. So in case you haven’t noticed, the big story these days is that Congress adjourned and left town without passing 10 of their 12 spending bills.
That means that for the time being, and probably for all of next year, the government is operating under a continuing resolution. Federal agencies are being funded at last year’s level. There is, in effect, a spending freeze. It will save taxpayers $17 billion in 2007.
That’s good news for all of us -- except lawmakers who want to spend our tax money. “The American people are tired of the political games being played in Washington. Governing is not about putting points on some political scoreboard; governing is about working together in the best interests of the American people,” Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., complained.
Well, senator, with all due respect, the games people are tired of are the spending games.
The way the process works (or doesn’t work) is that massive spending bills are passed at the end of a legislative session. They disappear into conference committees, where powerful lawmakers insert scores of pet projects. Then one new bill, with millions or billions in additional spending, gets passed by lawmakers who don’t even have a chance to read it.
This year, two Republican senators, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, decided to change that. They insisted that lawmakers strip the pork from the budget before they’d allow the bills to move forward. The big spenders refused, so now we’re living under a CR.
That frightens some lawmakers, who are now trying to frighten us. The continuing resolution “is going to hurt millions of people across this country. It hurts vets, kids and almost every program that matters is going to be cut,” Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., claimed. “Here we are in the holiday season, and this is the gift they’re giving the American people. It’s worse than a lump of coal.”
Actually, the gift that DeMint and Coburn are giving is a dose of fiscal sanity. The government’s finally holding the line on spending, which it should have done years ago.
In 2006 alone, federal spending increased 9 percent. Did your family’s spending increase that much? Since 1999, non-defense discretionary spending -- that’s money the government chooses to spend, rather than money it’s required to spend -- has jumped 34 percent. Again, has your family increased its spending by one-third in the last five years?
Certainly, after all these years of new spending, we can afford to hold the line on spending for a year without endangering anyone. Maybe we’ll even start a trend, with lawmakers competing to reduce federal spending (or at least hold it steady) instead of automatically increasing it.
Whenever there’s a snowstorm in the nation’s capitol, the government tells “non-essential” personnel they may stay home. That’s a reminder that the federal government is doing some important things, but that it also has plenty of fat we could trim.
Despite their disagreements, lawmakers successfully passed both the defense and homeland security appropriations bills. The same was true back in 1995, when lawmakers had passed the Defense appropriations bill long before the great shutdown. The important jobs were funded. It’s the wasteful, pork-barrel spending lawmakers are arguing over.
This year, let’s toast continuing resolutions, and hope they eventually help us eliminate some “non-essential” federal employees.