|Some colleagues, taking a break from work|
NPR ran a calm and measured short history of government shutdowns yesterday, which I thought was a most welcome change from the otherwise hysterical media coverage of Washington's budget impasse. Did you know that these shutdowns used to treated with a big yawn? They were.
"In the '60s and '70s down until 1980, it was not taken that seriously at all," says Charles Tiefer, a former legal adviser to the House of Representatives, who now teaches at the University of Baltimore Law School. In the old days, he says, when lawmakers reached a budget stalemate, the federal workforce just went about its business.
"It was thought that Congress would soon get around to passing the spending bill and there was no point in raising a ruckus while waiting," he says.
Ah, the good old days. "No point in raising a ruckus" about a passing event that is, in any case, an inevitable consequence of our system of divided government. Such an adult attitude. But then, we didn't have the internet back in the 60s and 70s, or even cable TV, so how would you raise a ruckus in the first place? By the time you did that with print media, I suppose a new budget would have been approved.
It was Jimmy Carter's administration that invented Government Shutdown Theater. Turning Boy Scout Troops away from a closed Washington Monument, predicting that airplanes will fall from the skies and farmers will wander the earth not knowing what to plant without their Federal controllers and extension agents, and all that. I don't see how that was an improvement, but maybe it took people's minds off of the economic stagflation and 'odd/even' gasoline rationing that Carter had going on.
"They [Carter's Justice Department] used an obscure statute to say that if any work continued in an agency where there wasn't money, the employees were behaving like illegal volunteers," says Tiefer. "So they not only could shut off the lights and leave, they were obliged to shut off the lights and leave."
In the years leading up to [AG] Civiletti's opinion, budget standoffs lasting a week or more were commonplace. But after the opinion, no standoff lasted more than three days until the epic government shutdowns of 1995.
The WaPo has a list of the 17 previous government shutdowns since 1976, when the current budgeting process took effect. These things are not that unusual, and are normally over in a few days. Until then, it's best to remain calm and carry on, as the posters say. Complaining to your Congressman, bitching to the newspapers, and - most of all - picketing either Congress or the White House, are silly and counterproductive.
Fellow Feds, I say, don't be a bit player in Government Shutdown Theater. Refuse to raise a ruckus while we wait for a resolution. It would be quite pointless anyway. Outside the bubble of Washington DC no one, but no one, feels any sympathy for a class of people who make more than the average American, have better employment benefits than almost anyone else, and are least likely of all to be affected by the severe economic downturn that's going on out there in Real America. Those of us who don't get out of the bubble much need that tough love message occasionally.
I know it's easier said than done, but really, the best course is to relax, light up a smoke (at least metaphorically), and ignore the breathless panic-mongering that feeds the 24-hour news cycle.