Shutdown? What shutdown?

In case you hadn’t noticed, the federal government is not currently functioning at full capacity. As one who works in Washington, D.C., I can certainly attest that traffic is lighter. But when I gaze upon federal agencies and Capitol Hill, to me it still feels like business as usual.

The sad truth is it is business as usual.

President Obama, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and their compatriots are abuzz with stories of how the shutdown has triggered the countdown to Armageddon. Admittedly, it is unfortunate that many long-planned weddings will not occur at federal monuments, by the “national” shores of Gitche Gumee, or even on Alcatraz (an interesting metaphor, by the way).

But hidden behind all the finger-pointing and government-union hand-wringing is the reality that the federal administrative state remains alive and well and continues to create barriers to economic freedom, entrepreneurship and innovation.

The Federal Register is the “daily journal of the United States.” No, it’s not a diary. It is a tangible reminder government sees its primary role to tell individuals and businesses what, when and how to go about their lives and activities. During the shutdown last week, there were 113 final regulations published, making it the most prolific week of the year to date for the “dormant” federal government.

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The Environmental Protection Agency alone issued 12 rules, and the Federal Aviation Administration issued 28 regulations. In the first two full days of the shutdown, the Register added 1,149 pages and described 56 final rules–roughly double and triple the norm, respectively. The 2013 Federal Register is on pace for 79,971 pages, the third-longest edition since publication began in 1936.  Only the 2010 and 2011 editions were longer.

However, the Federal Register’s website contains a dubious warning:

Due to an appropriations lapse, the Office of the Federal Register (OFR) is not updating this site. OFR is publishing documents…that are directly related to the performance of governmental functions necessary to address imminent threats to the safety of human life or protection of property.

So in other words, this latest flurry of pages and tripling of regulations may not be the full story!

And what exactly are these rules related to “functions necessary to address imminent threats” to Americans’ well being? Some of the rather absurd regulations issued last week while the federal government twiddled its thumbs include:

• Regulations for the raising and lowering of several drawbridges in Wilmington, Del., that span the Christina River.

• Guidelines for a federal Blueberry Promotion and Research Program and an increase in the rates the government charges blueberry farmers to fund the program.

• New listings for seven species as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, including Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly and the streaked horned lark, which also received a combined 6,000-plus acres of critical habitat. If any of the land on which the species live is private property, that could constitute a regulatory taking. Other newly protected species include blue-throated macaw, the spring pygmy sunfish, the Florida bonneted bat and two species of cactus.

• Establishment of four new “viticultural areas” that winemakers can use to make their labels seem fancier, to be overseen by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Like many who live in the nation’s capital, I have friends who work in government and take their responsibilities seriously. They would prefer to get on with their working lives and earn a paycheck—I get that. But the regulatory apparatus they work for is no friend to me or to the free enterprise system that gave this country value and enabled it to flourish.

The world has not collapsed. And this go-round is entirely different from the political gamesmanship between President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich in the mid-1990s. We should be encouraged that today’s social media is fostering a healthy skepticism about the actual impact of a reduced federal presence, just as it did with the White House’s hyperbolic anti-sequestration campaign last spring.  Both the president and Congress deserve their dismal approval ratings.

But that may be the only good news.

Roughly 800,000 furloughed federal workers will return to their cubicles soon. This “crisis” will pass, and the Grand Canyon will magically reappear out of the Brigadoon-like mist, and we all will be grateful the government has given back “our” parks and monuments and food stamps and farm subsidies and defense contracts.  And World War II veterans no longer will have to storm barricades to enjoy a tangible reminder of what they sacrificed and earned.

Let sleeping dogs lie, goes the old saying.  But if last week is any indication of the regulatory activity that occurs when government hibernates, imagine what lies in store for us when it awakes.


For more, go to CEI’s weekly Battered Business Bureau: The Week in Regulation