The federal government shutdown has shown us the true face of Washington, and it’s ugly. The partisan bickering, grandstanding, and persistent refusal to compromise we’ve seen over the past two weeks is emblematic of everything Americans don’t like about their president and Congress.
But the shutdown has also exposed Washington as a town of “nonessential federal employees,” whose jobs are more effectively done at the state level. As state governments have stepped up to fill the void left by Washington’s failures, we’ve seen once again that many of the powers of the federal government should instead be left to states, localities, and the private sector.
My native South Dakota’s attempt to keep Mount Rushmore open during the shutdown was emblematic of the federal government’s arrogance and outsized power. A closure of the famous national monument — the state’s most popular tourist attraction — was a threat to South Dakota’s economy, prompting Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) to propose an innovative public-private partnership that would have seen state personnel provide security and private donations fund operational costs. The federal government refused to give South Dakota permission to go ahead with this plan, driving thousands of tourists — and their money — away from the state’s small businesses.
Although South Dakota was unsuccessful in this particular regard, state leaders across the country have stepped up to keep business running as usual by acting like responsible adults while D.C. has devolved into a kindergarten sandbox. New Mexico, through responsible budget management, has built cash reserves capable of keeping social welfare offices open throughout the federal shutdown, and Virginia is also redirecting funds to keep government employees on the job.
Public charities and private foundations have also shown the capacity to fund projects currently under the shadow of the federal government. Most notably, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, dedicated to the victims of the 1995 bombing, was designed to be “shutdown proof” and is one of the few national monuments open this week because it relies on private funding.
The Republican National Committee also publicly offered to pay the $150,000 needed to keep the World War II Memorial open during the shutdown. While this was a carefully calculated political move by the GOP (in response to the equally politicized closure of the popular monument), there is no reason that other well-funded public interest organizations couldn’t follow the Oklahoma City model and cover the comparatively small costs of maintaining our nation’s parks and monuments full-time.
Like most things in Washington, the shutdown has been been three parts political gamesmanship to one part reality. Also, while politicians and the media have bent over backwards to paint a grave picture of the shutdown, defense, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — which comprise over 60 percent of all federal spending — have been mostly unaffected, and most of the engines of government that ordinary Americans interact with daily (for example, the Postal Service) continue to churn.
In this light, perhaps the shutdown, unnecessary as it has been, may ironically work to the benefit of budget negotiators. If the near-closure of several federal departments has had little effect on the vast majority of Americans’ everyday lives, there’s a strong argument to be made that many of the federal employees sitting at home this week are not only non-essential, but entirely unnecessary. Washington can dig itself out of the mess it has created only by eliminating government waste, and the shutdown has shone a spotlight on what we can live without, and what can be better handled by states and the private sector.
Jason Stverak is President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.