Sometime in the next few weeks Congress, as divided and intractable as ever, will begin its annual (or is it monthly?) confefe over increasing the Federal debt limit, bringing with it the usual hand-wringing over the possibility of a government shutdown. In spite of a barrage of dire warnings from Congressional leaders and media pundits, the reaction of most of the public seems to have been a collective raised eyebrow. Perhaps this has to do with the thick layer of unconcern that we have built up over the years regarding Congressional gridlock and media wolf-crying. But there is also the inordinately small ripple of national disruption that occurred the last time the government ostensibly ran out of money. Remember the year? Me neither, so I looked it up. It was 2013, during the fight over funding for Obamacare.
Why the blank in our memory banks? Maybe because, for the 95% of Americans who neither work for the government nor were trying to get into Yellowstone National Park that week, this shutdown, like the 18 previous ones, had almost no immediate effect. There are several reasons for this, the principal one being that the government didn’t really run out of money and most of it didn’t really close down. Tax revenue continued to come in and Social Security checks continued to go out, as did welfare payments. Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements were a little later than usual – no big deal, doctors and hospitals are accustomed to such. Some Federal employees were furloughed, but none lost a dime of pay. So-called vital services were unaffected. On the scale of imminent disasters soon to befall the Republic only the Y2K Bug has been a bigger flop.
True, an extended shutdown (or an actual government bankruptcy, such as might happen unannounced on, say, next Tuesday) would have some dire consequences. Luckily, the 5% of Americans (the ones Congress really pays attention to) who are most directly affected when the Feds stop answering emails have always managed to scream loud enough to keep shutdowns brief. The longest so far, during the Clinton Administration, lasted three weeks. Apparently tourists upset at being turned away from the Smithsonian have a lot more clout than those silly economists worried about our existing $20 trillion obligation.
This time, however, the string of abbreviated interruptions may be broken. President Trump recently mused that “what the country needs is a good shutdown”, which taken literally (as almost everyone loves to do with Mr. Trump’s pronouncements) is like saying somebody needs a good heart attack. But there is occasionally a particle of sense in the President’s blatherings, and what he might be trying to say here is that a prolonged absence of government assistance (as well as the absence of government interference) might prod citizens to recognize what elements of the Federal bureaucracy we might be able to do without. Or he might just be flipping a Tweet at Chuck Schumer. What is certain is that if he is serious about confronting Congress over the debt ceiling, the 21-day Clinton/Gingrich shutdown record will be in real jeopardy come September. Because when it comes to intractability, nobody in Congress is in Trump’s league.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that cities and states don’t need the Federal government to fight climate change, that they can do it on their own. This Fall we may get a hard look at what else cities and states can, or can’t, do on their own. It will most certainly be a learning experience.