Thursday, October 17, 2013

The State of the Republic after a Government Shutdown

After 16 days of being told that I could not come in to work I am officially back on the job. It is a good feeling to be doing something that I love once again, although I am definitely going to need to retrain myself to get up and go into work every day! 

The timing of the shutdown was actually incredibly good for me.  I had just returned from spending ten days in Georgia for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, and was scrambling to play catch up with all the schoolwork I had not gotten done while I was gone. The shutdown came at the perfect time to allow me to, not only catch up, but also keep up with all of the additional work, including writing three papers. I still have two more papers to write in the next week, but was able to get a lot done in the past two weeks, work that I don’t know how I possibly could have finished if not for the shutdown. The timing also perfectly coincided with Alison’s parents coming to visit. They arrived on October 8 and departed yesterday, which meant that I did not have to go into work the entire time they were here. Although we could not go to Shenandoah National Park as we had planned, I was able to do a good deal more with them while they were here because of not having to go to work. So, from a personal standpoint, the shutdown came at a rather good time. If only they had passed a CR that expired December 7 or 8 and then shut down the government again for a week or so to allow me to get all of my finals done… :p

In all seriousness, despite the benefit of extra time for school and family, the stress of having to try and figure out how we would pay bills with me not getting a paycheck and constantly having to reevaluate plans to make sure I was available to go into work if called back, definitely made the shutdown a less than enjoyable experience.

Being furloughed during a government shutdown taught me a lot, and revealed much about the status of our nation. Here are a few of the things that I observed:

~We have serious problems with the leadership of our country. There have been fights among political factions since the day the American republic was founded, but the situation we face now is exceptional in the intensity of partisanship, and the ineffectiveness of the leaders of our government to effectively govern.

~You can blame the shutdown on who you want, but no matter how you look at it, the result is far from optimistic. The great solution to reopen the government after 16 days of closure was to do almost nothing at all. The debt ceiling was raised for a few months and the government funded for even less, with no measure taken to effect any sort of meaningful change. I am glad to be back at work, but the bill that was signed last night gives me very little hope for our future.   

~The adherence to partisan ideology in this country has reached a point that should disturb all of us. The way that congressional districts have been drawn all but guarantees the reelection of many members of Congress and it is abundantly apparent that few are willing to stand up for the best interest of the people and really take a stand for something. Most coverage of the shutdown and nearly all the comments I heard from members of Congress was focused on vilifying the opposing side with no sense of responsibility and little or no reference to the large political culture and issues that have made this situation possible. This is a stupid way to run a government and the ongoing polarization is making it worse. We would do well as a nation to call more attention to it.

~On a related note, I was sorely disappointed in the behavior of our president. I did not vote for Obama. I did not want him to be the president. However, he was elected by the majority of the American populace and therefore rightfully occupies the office of the President of the United States. With that office comes certain responsibilities and expectations. Chief amongst them are to act like the president. Throughout the shutdown process Obama consistently set himself up as, not the president, but rather the head of the Democratic Party. The clear partisanship of his statements and actions is not the model of presidential authority. As the president, he should be able to set aside his own political beliefs and step above the partisanship, something he has clearly and consistently failed to do. In many ways he is just as radical and extreme as conservative Republicans, he is just radical and extreme in the other direction. Rather than recognizing this and striving for a moderate middle ground, he consistently blames conservative Republicans for everything as if he has no power to do anything about it. This is not presidential. It is petty and childish. Being the president doesn’t mean you get your way. It means you lead both parties and the country as a whole.

~The American people, many members of Congress, and President Obama displayed a significant lack of understanding of basic divisions of power and responsibility under the Constitution. Whether you agree with Tea Party Republicans or think they are the antithesis of all that is good and right in the world, the suggestion that the House of Representatives does not have the ability to determine what gets funded and what doesn’t (which I heard repeatedly over the past three weeks from many sources, including the president) is patently false. This is a power that is explicitly given to that body of our government by the Constitution.

Congress as a whole has the power to:
     “lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common
       Defense and general Welfare of the United States.” (Article 1: Section 8)


      “borrow Money on the credit of the United States.” (Article 1: Section 8)

Two other especially relevant passages are:

Article 1: Section 7:
  “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives.”


Article 1: Section 9:
  “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

In other words, the government cannot pay for something unless a bill for raising revenue or a bill to borrow money on national credit and then an appropriation are passed. Thus, both the Senate and the House have to be involved in raising money and funding government programs and if they choose not to fund something it doesn’t operate. This is the express power of Congress, not the Executive or Judiciary. It is a fact that seems to have been widely forgotten by much of the American public.

~On a similar note, it was very surprising to me how many people, including members of Congress do not seem to understand that when an appropriation is not passed the government has to close down its operations. While I readily agree that it is very confusing because so many government functions were not stopped (I think they should have been, but that is another conversation), the fact remains that it is a very clear cause and effect scenario. If Congress does not pass appropriations the federal government has to close down sites normally available to the public.  

~As I noted in my Last Post, I was very surprised to see how much both members of Congress and the American public vilified the Park Service for the closure of parks. I thought that most people, and certainly members of Congress, understood that failing to pass an appropriation of funds meant that all 401 National Park units had to close. Not some of them, not the less popular ones, all of them. One of the things that became all too evident during the shutdown was that this fact is not understood well at all.

~In the midst of the shutdown a House regulatory commission subpoenaed the Director of the National Park Service to a hearing on his supposed intentionally and unnecessarily painful implementation of the shutdown. It was truly painful to watch this hearing. The sheer lack of understanding and lack of responsibility was appalling. Among the many things that bothered me about that hearing (and there are many) was the fact that the shutdown was treated as a normal and expected function of government. Director Jarvis was lambasted for not having a plan in place to keep parks open through state funding as if that was something he obviously should have prepared for since shutdowns are a routine part of governmental operations. Likewise he was attacked for failing to reopen subsidiary sites more quickly when he was operating with a miniscule staff because nearly everyone had been furloughed. It doesn’t even make sense. The hearing was a powerful example of the failure of our government to understand that there are consequences for their actions or lack thereof. 

So while I am very glad and thankful to be back and work (and receive a paycheck!), I am concerned for the future of our nation. Change needs to happen or we will find ourselves in increasingly dire straits in the months, years, and decades to come. 


  1. Garrett,

    What did you do at Chickamauga? I was there, both helping with tours, and just enjoying myself - did we meet? I confess I don't remember.

    Dave Powell

    1. Dave, I don't recall meeting you specifically, but we may have! I was one of the photographers/ videographers covering the events on behalf of the Park Service. It was very fun to get to be a part of it.