In Washington the government shutdown has just ended, at least temporarily. Congress’s recently concluded deal is vaunted as the re-opening of the federal government. But in reality the government was never really closed. Unless you happened to be one of the well-connected elite, a federal employee, or a member of a privileged political group, it was only closed to you.
By now it is well known that during the “shutdown” the U.S. Park Service somehow not only found time to barricade the wide open spaces of national parks and monuments, it also had the non-furloughed manpower available to police these same places and write tickets to any regular American who had the audacity to hope they could walk onto the broad grass lawns of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in order to get a closer look at the Lincoln Memorial. In one particularly egregious case of ensuring no American would go unpunished for the shutdown, some people in Washington State were ticketed for merely stopping in front of the majestic mountains of the Olympic Peninsula to take a picture.
That these and other similar incidents were petty bullying is obvious. What’s more disturbing is how unequally the shutdown was enforced. For friends of the government, the parks remained open. A pro-immigration rally was allowed to occur on the Mall in Washington, D.C. on October 8, just days after the supposed shut-down. The justification for this event was that it could not be proscribed because the shutdown didn’t apply to “First Amendment-type activities.” However, as a Park Service spokesperson later clarified, this only applied in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, and not the other 395 national parks where politically unconnected Americans might actually want to gather and enjoy property that theoretically belongs to them.
These incidents were well publicized, but what went unreported were the many smaller events, previously scheduled in supposedly shuttered federal buildings, that were allowed to go off without a hitch. Private, black-tie events, in places like the federally-owned Andrew Mellon Auditorium, proceeded despite the closures, evidence that the shutdown was not meant for everyone.
Consider the case of federal workers. Only seventeen percent of the federal government was actually furloughed. These were concentrated particularly in areas that would impose the most pain on the American people: not simply parks, but passport offices, customer service positions, even popular government websites like NASA’s satellite imagery. (It is hard to see how making a website inaccessible saves money, since maintaining a website that says “this website is unavailable due to the government shutdown” costs the same as leaving up the original site.) But the workers themselves simply got a paid vacation. The final deal ending the shutdown provides that federal employees who didn’t work during the shutdown will nonetheless receive full pay for their days off.
How many other Americans that aren’t federal employees get paid for not working? It is safe to say that in the private sector one gets paid for showing up to work. In some lucky cases one might also get a few paid vacation days. No one receives pay because they are deemed non-essential.
This last fact illustrates an unspoken truth: the government shutdown was never a battle about key decisions regarding the long term well-being of our country. In reality it was a skirmish among rival factions competing for spoils in the imperial city. No friends of the government were hurt in the making of this drama: federal workers got paid, government contractors received their checks, select friends were able to access supposedly closed facilities. Only the unconnected American people, pawns in the factional war, felt the pain of the spat.
Washington DC has grown increasingly unconnected from the people that pay for its existence. Since the great recession, while the rest of America has barely grown at a paltry 3 percent rate, the Washington D.C. metro area economy has grown over 4 times as fast. Of the 10 wealthiest counties in America, six are in the DC metro area. Federal workers, who according to the Congressional Budget Office make on average 2 percent more in salary and benefits than their private sector counterparts, are in fact on the bottom rung of the DC income ladder. It is the lawyers, lobbyists and crony-capitalist contractors who have benefited most from the ceaseless growth of government.
The latest debt ceiling and funding fight should have been about these facts. While Washington gets richer America is now $17 trillion in debt and growing. Not simply content in the cash it sucks from the rest of America, it is destroying your credit too.
There was no government shutdown. There was only the latest and most publicized example of the great Washington shut-out. And if you have to ask, the one being shut out is you.
The author is a lobbyist in Washington. D.C. He has asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.