The Politics of Government Shutdowns

The Politics of Government Shutdowns
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Sept. 25, 2023. (Madalina Vasiliu/The Epoch Times)
Jeffrey A. Tucker

The Senate has reached an agreement to pillage you for countless billions ($6 billion to Ukraine!) in exchange for which the government stays open. If all goes well, the House will reject this highway robbery and cause a government shutdown.

On the one hand, there's poetry to what's happening. Forty-four months ago, governments shut down bars, gyms, churches, cruises, playgrounds, schools, malls, and “all public and private venues where people congregate.” To make those egregious actions passably tolerable, the federal government blew the budget and dropped many trillions all over the country.

Sure enough, after all of this time, the money has dried up and the budget is caught up in a welcome partisan fight, with one side favoring no end to the spending bonanza and the other side a bit squeamish about utterly shredding basic accounting realities. Therefore, a government shutdown seems likely. And there’s the poetry: They shut us down, we shut them down.

On the other hand, in our current world, nothing is ever as clean and satisfying as it looks. The administrative state is determined to use the government shutdown as a chance to show you just how essential they are to your life. You can fully expect that every service of government that you might want to use will be throttled and stopped. Meanwhile, all of the parts of government services about which you care nothing or hate will continue on as always (such as the funding of Ukraine).

Consider travel, for example. Twenty-two years ago, Congress decided that the federal government under the newly created Department of Homeland Security should take full charge of airline and airport security. Previously, this had been handled by the carriers and airports themselves. There was simply no chance that this would improve security, but they did it anyway. Now, we're stuck with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a bureaucratic agency of government subject to the funding contingencies of Congress.

Technically, the TSA is supposed to be “essential.” I despise that term because it's invariably followed by the designation nonessential, which is incredibly degrading and untrue. In any case, TSA employees are supposed to come to work. But, of course, they can call in sick, take paid time off, get stuck in traffic, and so on, all of which is more likely if they aren’t being paid, even if back pay is promised.

This might mean long lines, flight cancellations, and various other delays, even more than we’ve come to expect.

It’s the same with services such as passport processing. Presumably, that's essential, but slowdowns can also occur.

It’s also true for national parks and monuments. When the money runs out, they're closed. There's a creepy satisfaction that these people get from telling families that have driven a day to be somewhere that they have to be turned away. “Sorry, but Congress is being stingy, and you're paying the price.”

In Washington parlance, this is called the Washington Monument Ploy. It costs comparatively nothing to keep it open, but the bureaucratic armies enjoy these displays of showing just how much the people suffer when the money spigot is shut off, even temporarily.

You can count on the major media making a huge deal out of this, showing reels of long lines at airports, interviewing angry families, ferreting out people who have delayed passports, and so on, all in an effort to show you and me just how wonderful government truly is for our lives.

The gamble here is that these tactics will provoke people to call their representatives and demand that they vote on all relevant funding immediately. That breaks the logjam, and then the Republicans get the blame for imposing so much pain and suffering on the American people. At least, that’s how it has usually played out in the past, which is why Republicans are so unwilling to take budget negotiations off the cliff like this.

This time might be different, however. If possible, a shutdown could further erode trust, which is already at historic lows. It’s not really clear that the Republicans will get the blame. Maybe, the public will turn on those who continue to impose pain as a form of blackmail to make the public cough up ever more of their money. Maybe, people will be asking questions such as: “Why are the billions to [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy more important than my passport?”

We’ve actually never lived with such low confidence in government as we have now. We don’t really know what the political effects are going to be from this. Some clues come from the latest presidential polls that show former President Donald Trump leading over President Joe Biden.

That’s astounding in many ways given the media hatred, the endless indictments, and the eight-year-long campaign to treat him like humankind’s greatest enemy. It seems as if his popularity is less related to his policies—he was, after all, the guy who shut down the schools and churches—but rather a pure act of defiance against the ruling class on the part of average people.

The attitude seems to be: “If you hate him so much, maybe I’ll just vote for him.”

There are other clues that confidence in government is at historic lows. Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given an interview in which he said that there's simply no way that government could now shut down society and the economy as it did in 2020. Confidence in public health and government generally is far too low.
As part of the interview, Mr. Cuomo makes the very bizarre statement that he had no way to enforce any of the lockdown edicts that he issued. He said that anyone who wanted to defy the closures and masks was free to do so and that there was nothing that he could do about it. That’s simply not true. People were in fact muscled within an inch of their lives throughout the whole period. It was absolutely not voluntary. People were having to sneak around just to get a haircut! So it’s hard to make sense of his statement, unless he's admitting that the lockdown junta was an illegitimate government all along.

Another oversight on his part is failing to see the connection between the loss of confidence in government and the [COVID-19] pandemic response, which made no sense, didn’t work to achieve their aims, and fully discredited the experts along the way. He doesn’t bother to connect the dots here.

In any case, we’ve actually never experienced a government shutdown before with public confidence in government so dreadfully low. It very well might be that this shutdown will massively backfire. Instead of demonstrating just how essential government is to our lives, it would only further infuriate the public that essential services—which the federal government has monopolized—are being withheld so as to force lawmakers to cough up more resources pillaged from the public.

No one likes long lines at airports, delayed passports, and closed monuments. But if that's the price we must pay to humble and even humiliate our overlords for what they have done to us, so be it. Government by blackmail isn't an acceptable form of public finance. This is why it might indeed be wise this time for the House Republicans to hold the line, get ferocious, and finally demand that the federal government start living within its means.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute, and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.