Shutdowns not an option for local government

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
From The Beacon, November 2013

The federal government shutdown fiasco is in the history books, thankfully, and now is a good time to examine the lessons learned. One springs to mind immediately: the decision to close the federal government was a strategic nightmare doomed to fail from the very beginning. Another is that our country can navigate through for a few days with a skeleton crew at the helm of the federal government and most agencies closed for business, but there is no way that our nation’s cities and towns could shut down their services without causing massive and immediate societal and economic upheaval. Meaning no disrespect to federal officials, but it is clear that the services provided by local government are much more integrated and entwined with people’s daily lives. We need our federal partners to make note of this fact.

Overall, it is stunning that many members of Congress actually believed (and apparently still believe) that shutting down the federal government was a good tactic that would help them achieve their goal of abolishing or gutting the Affordable Care Act. These lawmakers have all been successful in their own elections, so it’s safe to assume that they came to office with a high level of political acumen. Yet they completely flubbed when it came to understanding the big picture, and why their effort was bound to fail.

First, the House of Representatives has already voted many times to repeal the ACA, but the Senate and president disagree. It is impossible for one legislative body to prevail on an issue if the other house of Congress and the president are on the other side. That’s how the U.S. Constitution is written.

Second, those behind the shutdown strategy represented a minority of the House. The voting block agreeing to shut down federal offices represented a majority of the House Republicans, but less than 50 percent of overall House membership. The House leadership was paralyzed because they did not have enough votes within their own party conference to win an open vote on the floor of Congress on the issue of continuing the shutdown for any length of time. This meant that the speaker had virtually no ability to broker or leverage a deal with the Senate or president because he did not have the House behind him.

Third, the only leverage that the shutdown advocates had was to stand pat and prolong the shutdown, hoping that unrest over shuttered federal services and programs would force the Senate and president to cave in to their demands on the ACA. But they were asking for something that their colleagues could never agree to. If a minority of House members could use their ability to close the government (by refusing to pass a budget) to force action on an unrelated bill that otherwise would never become law, then that precedent would become the new mainstream tactic for lawmakers in either branch and either party. Thus, majority rule in the House and Senate would be under constant assault, and government gridlock and paralysis would only deepen over time, because the budget process would become hostage to constant threats to revive otherwise-dead legislation.

Fourth, citizens may gripe about government, but they love the services that are provided. Even the partial shutdown, which spared most of the military as well as many emergency public health and safety functions (such air traffic control, hurricane tracking, and salmonella monitoring), led to wildly unpopular closures. The front page of the newspaper highlighted the impact on national parks, National Institutes of Health research, cancer treatments, and much more, including concern over the impending shutoff of emergency fuel assistance and cuts in social programs. Many members of Congress have confused public distrust of government with how people feel about the programs and services that government provides. Poll after poll shows that the public likes and wants the services that they use, and the citizens are really upset when these services are impaired.

The shutdown advocates expected a popular uprising that would provide energy and momentum to their cause. Instead they faced unrest and a popular revolt against their cause, as taxpayers responded by telling their members of Congress to stop playing politics with the programs they like.

All told, the shutdown aficionados were following a doomed strategy from the start. The federal government is back in business, but only until January. Let’s hope that the lessons learned do not fade too quickly, otherwise we could face another gridlock moment on Capitol Hill. As George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yet beyond the political analysis of the latest chapter in “DC Follies” there is a much more fundamental observation to underscore – the federal government can close down for a few days and daily life can continue for the most part. That is NOT the case at the local level.

Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if cities and towns took two weeks off and suspended police and fire protection, ambulance service, schools, road repairs (including keeping traffic lights working and clearing accidents), drinking water and sewer services, electricity (in 40 communities), restaurant inspections, animal control, meals on wheels to seniors, afterschool programs for troubled youth, building inspections and permitting, veterans’ benefits, benefits to retirees, paychecks for thousands of municipal and school employees, and closed libraries, senior centers, and parks.

And then imagine how the public would react if those responsible pointed fingers at others and tried to deflect blame or leverage a political outcome.

The point is that during every minute from daybreak to bedtime, citizens rely on local services to navigate their daily lives. Without these programs, society (and our economy) would grind to an immediate halt. Local leaders don’t have the option to even consider a shutdown. Indeed, that idea is an anathema to municipal officials.

So even as we bemoan the increasing partisanship, polarization and gridlock in Washington, D.C., we should remember to celebrate the enduring beauty and effectiveness of our local government system. It works. It works really well. And our citizens know it.

That’s perhaps the most affirming lesson to learn from all of this.