On Wednesday, congressional leaders introduced a stop-gap measure to prevent the U.S. government shutdown that would have begun after April 28, when the previous Continuing Resolution was set to expire. Congress and the president will still need to reach an agreement about a budget plan, but for the time being, federal services (and spending) will move forward without interruption. The chorus in Washington will shout “Crisis averted!” and many people across the nation will breathe a sigh of relief.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it should. Federal Government Shutdown Theater has become a semi-regular staple on Capitol Hill since 1976, with almost annual threats of federal government shutdowns and 18 actual shut downs over the past 41 years.
The actual shutdowns have lasted anywhere from as little as one day, on several occasions, to as long as 21 days during President Bill Clinton’s tenure in office. When the federal government has shut down, it has done so for an average of 7 days, and the last time it shut down, in October 2013, it did so for 16 days.
During the frequent occasions when politicians are threatening to shut down the U.S. government, Americans are told that it will cost millions of jobs and that the markets will be negatively impacted because the government’s workers won’t be there to keep the economy and markets going, and that even Social Security checks will be at risk until after the machinery of the U.S. government has been oiled with newly approved funding.
If 18 actual federal government shutdowns have taught us anything, it is that politicians’ claims about the negative impact for ordinary Americans are greatly exaggerated.
Take, for example, the 16-day closure of 2013. Social Security checks went out on schedule, the American economy registered some of its strongest economic growth during President Obama’s entire tenure in office, and the U.S. stock market rose.
In truth, outside of the news headlines, most Americans wouldn’t have even noticed that the federal government shutdown. That’s because only nonessential federal bureaucrats were directed to not work during that period. Eighty percent of the federal government’s 4.1 million employees stayed on the job, most performing essential tasks related to national security, public safety, or critical health care services.
If Americans did have any first-hand experience with parts of the federal government being shut down, it was often in the form of being turned away from 401 national parks and hundreds of campgrounds on federal lands. Or in being inconvenienced by the temporary closure of a Social Security branch office. Or in not having their federally subsidized mortgage application processed during the period of the shutdown.
All things that, for most people, would fall into the category of mild, if somewhat annoying, inconvenience.
Even that mild inconvenience could have been minimized. Unfortunately, then-President Obama sought to increase the pain of the shutdown inflicted on ordinary Americans, using his power to block state governments and local communities from taking over the federal government’s nonessential roles.
There’s a great example of that spiteful conduct in Arizona, where the U.S. Park Service closed the Grand Canyon National Park as part of the 2013 shutdown. Because tourism to the Grand Canyon is vital for the livelihoods of the people who live in that region of Arizona, the area’s businesses and the state government pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars to reopen the park during the shutdown using state park personnel and local volunteers.
The National Park Service turned the offer down, with one park official indicating that “as long as the federal government remains shut down, such a plan isn’t an option.”
That seeming insanity led to a public backlash, forcing the National Park Service to ease up. The Grand Canyon reopened a week later, before the federal shutdown ended, but at a price. President Obama would allow the national parks to reopen, but they would do so with federal employees getting their paychecks from the states, which the federal government would not be required to reimburse.
In the end, there was never a reason for the national parks to have been closed, because the burden of operating them could have been fully taken up by the states and the local communities that surround them.
That realization, combined with the knowledge that federal government shutdowns have little impact, leads to a fundamental question we ought to ask as we approach another potential government shutdown in 2017: What does the U.S. government do that is genuinely valuable to the majority of Americans?
After all, if we can have twenty percent of the federal government shut down and nobody is more than mildly inconvenienced, perhaps we can all do with at least that much less federal government across the board. That’s certainly something we can learn from having experienced so many previous episodes of Federal Government Shutdown Theater.
Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He is also the creator of the Government Cost Calculator at MyGovCost.org.