On Friday, the federal government shut down — except that it didn’t. On Monday, it appears it will reopen, saving us all from wringing our hands for at least the next three weeks.
The debate was over funding that was being stalled over questions of immigration reform and the fate of the so-called “Dreamers.” All the compromises offered were true compromises in that both sides refused to accept both of them.
“Washington Monument Syndrome” is what we call the vindictive cudgel that is first cutting the government stuff that people like. The term was invented in 1968, after National Parks director George Hartzog responded to budget cuts by closing 200 parks (as well as various Washington area monuments including the Washington Monument) for two days a week. The cut was originally going to be 4 percent, which is a puny amount except in the zero-sum death-grapple that is the federal government. The motive for the cut was the Vietnam War, so that is perhaps particularly insulting, but the move was a savvy bit of blackmail that worked. Three months later, the $17 million in missed funds appeared.
There were subsequent fights in the 1990s, but younger people are most likely to remember the 2013 Obamacare scrap that led to 17 days of a government shutdown, which initially lead to nonagenarian veterans in wheelchairs on their last trips being barred from viewing the National World War II Memorial.
The latter was such egregious PR for just about every human being, that eventually a solution was worked out so that vets could see the monuments. Parks administrators had a few good points in response to outrage — We didn’t dub ourselves non-essential! We want to be funded! Besides, people mess up monuments, they let their kids use them as monkey bars. Also, terrorism threats are possible.
This shutdown wasn’t as severe as the 2013 one. Only a fraction of IRS workers went to work during those two weeks, which is admittedly awesome. Yet, as Newsweek put it five years ago, “You're still required to pay taxes, but any refunds could potentially be delayed, depending on the extent of the shutdown.” That sums up the nature of big government beautifully.
The DC zoo’s panda cam was turned off. This sort of thing raises a fearsome specter in front of the eyes of anyone who has ever debated smaller government in any circumstance, from a panel to raucous bar; when they cut funding, they come for the panda cam first. And when they cut the panda cam, the government confirms itself as too vital, so that it might stay fat and happy for all eternity.
First, just as your good-natured liberal friend fears, they will never cut the serious stuff first. Old people blocked from looking at statues, pandas unavailable, anything to make you miss government. Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has time to mess with a Polish doctor who has been in the country for four decades.
Cutting the fun stuff also reaffirms the inability of the private sector to provide panda cams, or parks. Both of those things have an audience, both of those things could easily find private sector funding. Using them like a fifth-grader who stole a first grader’s teddy bear and is now holding it over her head makes it clear that no, how could we ever fund these things when their existence depends on a government that will take that away with a finger snap? It’s the perfect way to make liberals jealously guard their pet projects, and to learn to associate any whisper of budget cuts with the relatively benign thing I like will go away.
This mulishness about cuts might annoy the Right, but it doesn’t. Because essential versus non-essential services also props up their vicious night watchman state dreams. Sure, they say, we can stop funding silly wasteful things like sloggy bureaucratic parks. But we would never pull troops from abroad, or cut federal surveillance, or law enforcement, or any of the other big bads that are also wasteful, bloated, and bureaucratic, but also have the heavier responsibility to use deadly force on occasion, or to imprison people. Left and Right should be able to agree on trimming some fat there, but neither side wants to.
Perhaps with immigration, Congress will also be able to compromise, and in three weeks we’ll figure out a deal to save a few hundred thousand model, albeit illegal, citizens from deportation. In return, we’ll get a border wall, with all the eminent domain, Fourth Amendment violations, and environmental ruin that entails, and vicious cuts to future immigration — including the legal type.
That’s Washington’s compromise to offer you; it’s always more government power. You end up with a surveillance state for you and for the zoo pandas. Taking away the latter helps you not notice how well dug-in the former remains.
Lucy Steigerwald (@LucyStag) is a journalist and an editor at Young Voices.
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