If the longest-ever partial (25%) federal government shutdown persists, might Americans catch on that not everything the federal government does and regulates should remain national public policy issues?
Along with some White House staff, cabinet-level departments subject to furlough or working without a paycheck for the shutdown's duration, are Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, State, Transportation and Treasury.
Some agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and NASA are swept up, too.
The Wall Street Journal tells us economic growth is feeling a pinch from the 25% federal shutdown (the lost output, though, is that of workers who are paid by—taxpayers). Vox calls the effects “astonishing.” But doomsday hasn’t yet arrived, nearly a month into the impasse.
Sure, there plenty are suffering, and things will worsen—because government does so much, which should be, but is not, part of the issue.
Instead, any story any day on the Washington Post or NPR will highlight trials of federal employees and contractors. The Wall Street Journal describes an IRS bureaucrat reduced to making chili without meat.
Effects hit contractors immediately, and are starting to hit others: travelers; businesses like restaurants that cater to government; craft brewers needing permits; those trying to borrow money from the Small Business Administration, and plenty more to come.
But a lot of the things the federal government is shut over, revealed in these very stories, are things that Washington ought not be doing for or to us in the first place. As a small-“l”-libertarian I figure government finished most of its work when it picked a national bird.
OK, I'm kidding. Nonetheless, some non-bureaucrats outside the beltway may not be particularly sympathetic. While businesses fail all the time and employees are laid off all the time (thousands of layoffs were announced in 2018 from Tesla, GM, Wells Fargo, and others), federal agencies expand turf.
It's more than that: For all intents and purposes, significant regulatory agencies and their interventionist agendas are permanent.
Plenty of friends will tell you that the shutdown is a bad way to make the case for a "libertarian" downsizing. Yet conversations over the role of government do not happen otherwise.
Republicans have little vocabulary for downsizing government, and the bureaucracy appears utterly beyond streamlining.
If for no other reason than that it never happens otherwise, a shutdown—during which the sky does not fall—should be, but is not, a forcing event to reconsider not just the 25%, but the other 75%.
The mid-1990s was the last time a serious rollback of the federal enterprise was even seriously considered. Then-House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) proposed eliminating the entire Departments of Commerce, Education and Energy (only Education is not involved in the current shutdown) along with 14 agencies, 68 commissions and 283 programs. The effort failed.
Talk of abolishing the Transportation Security Administration (or TSA, which is part of the shutdown) by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) evaporated long ago. Bodies like the Government Accountability Office have long called for overlap reduction and defragmentation of government programs, to no avail.
Even the Trump administration’s “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” upon completion, consisted of recommendations for consolidation, de-duping and streamlining but not elimination of regulatory agencies.
Only the curmudgeonly ZeroHedge seemed fed up, seeing even more bureaucracy from polices yet to come from the never-seriously-interrogated darlings of socialist politics: “[Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez is a socialist, and she’s determined to give the voters exactly what they’ve asked for. Free school. Free drugs. Free retirement. And a guaranteed income for showing up to pretend jobs that are little more than adult daycare—like many of those jobs currently on furlough.”
Some of the public could be forgiven for being annoyed at the failure to do anything about federal make-work at the expense of taxpayers. Online comment sections are blowing up at government-sympathetic journalists, one noting the bureaucracy’s absence of compassion for the rest of America when they can’t make a payment when April 15th rolls around.
Along with that infamous job security, federal employees are known to enjoy “a more generous defined contribution pension than most private sector workers, and on top of this they have a defined benefit plan for which they pay less than 1 percent of salaries.” The latter has vanished for most private sector workers.
As Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsburg described in What Washington Gets Wrong: The Unelected Officials Who Actually Run the Government and Their Misconceptions about the American People (and in this C-SPAN interview with Brian Lamb), bureaucrats are generously compensated, and seem to see themselves as the betters of those they rule.
Infrastructure, food safety, preparation of statistics and financial data, loans; air traffic control; security on airplanes: All these and much more functions are vital, but sometimes government is an impediment to their advancement. That which NBC describes as an “economic hellscape” need not happen, now or ever. The alternative lesson from the shutdown is that we are too dependent on government, and that could inform reconsideration of what it does.
At a time when life was truly complicated compared to today—no electricity, indoor plumbing, no fast food or grocery stores created by the private sector but now “regulated” to the eyeballs by the public one—there were only four cabinet offices: secretaries of State, War, Treasury, and an Attorney General.
As Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College put it, “Education was a thing to behold in the United States long before there was a Department. Likewise people had houses before we had a Department of Housing and Urban Development; they traveled before we had a Department of Transportation; they traded before we had a Department of Commerce."
The debate matters because the real debate, largely ignored by the media's sympathy for the big government, is the one over the very scope of the federal Administrative State. The government subject to shutdown owes its bloated proportions to 19th and 20th Century Progressivism plus New Deal success at reorienting the entire relationship of the individual to the state, and to replacement of Congress by the unelected rulemaking bodies now temporarily inconvenienced.
The rest of us, and posterity, are permanently inconvenienced.
So why not, instead of only asking when the government will reopen, asking why, exactly, certain parts of it should.
What aspect of life is off-limits for today’s federal government? Not health care, schooling, retirement, finances, housing, energy, work life, wages, infrastructure, R&D, the Internet. Not even gas cans or e-cigarette/vaping paraphernalia, energy standards for residential dishwashers, whether or not to use ethanol, where the opening on one’s washing machine appears, and so on.
Government shutdown? We might be at least equally concerned about the shutdown of limited government. Where does all that talk about teachable moments and national conversations go when it comes to government maybe, just maybe, doing less?
Originally published at Forbes.