All last week, those of us living and working in the nation’s capital and some beyond waited with some combination of dread, fear and anticipation to see if our nation was headed toward a federal government shutdown. Not to make light of the very serious implications of a shutdown, but in the spirit of how I approached my confinement with Beatrix, I was preparing a post on “shutdown chic.” Some offices had pools on how long the shutdown would last. I even saw that local eating and drinking establishments were offering shutdown specials. Of course, others were taking more serious measures, like trying to figure out how they were going to support their families if the furlough lasted for any extensive period of time. We jested, but not really.
While most cheered, some actually groaned when The Powers That Be, running the shot clock to the very last second, reached agreement (for now) and averted shutdown. During this preceding week of uncertainty, my first real shutdown threat since I moved to Washington in 1997, I myself took some time to reflect on the services the federal government provides, those things that are just expected and which most people probably don’t realize cease to be performed under shutdown conditions.
I mean, everyone thinks they hate the government, right? But aren’t they just confusing the government as a whole with the government’s role as tax collector? I have never heard someone say, “you know, I just don’t pay enough taxes.” But on the other hand, I’ve never heard anyone say “wow, I am so thankful for a national defense.” The bottom line is that those taxes we pay fund the operation of so much we take for granted in our daily lives. Our federal government might not be totally efficient. There is definitely waste. But given the size (and I’m sorry, it isn’t going to get smaller folks) and scope of what is provided, I think we get a pretty good bang for our buck.
Let’s take, for instance, something that my own children were concerned about regarding the shutdown threat: the Smithsonian Museums. You know, the ones you get to go to for free when you visit Washington, DC, or if you live here, where you go on a bad (too hot or too cold) weather day? There are nineteen Smithsonian museums (which is why it’s funny when one is approached by a tourist with the question, “where’s the Smithsonian?”). In addition, there are nine Smithsonian research centers and the National Zoo. Have you ever noticed that you don’t have to pay San Diego Zoo-style admission prices to get into the Zoo in DC? Well, it’s a federally funded institution, supplemented in great part by private donations. And in the event of a government shutdown, the entire Smithsonian system in closed. If you planned your vacation to see you favorite mega-fauna frolic in the bamboo and there happened to be a shutdown, no admission. Your child has been dying to visit the Air and Space Museum? In a shutdown, it’s closed. There was even some question as to whether there would have been a Cherry Blossom parade this weekend if the government had shut down. All those high school bands from across the country that practiced and fund-raised all year to come here and march would have been sorely disappointed.
My kids, of course, were concerned as to whether someone would be there to feed the Zoo animals. It seems this type of worker is what we call “essential.” But I don’t see how you choose. At the risk of coming off too existential, can’t you make a case that everyone is essential?
Let’s take something that is a little less warm and fuzzy. Literally. I know border protection is important to many people. Being first generation American on my mom’s side of the family, I have to admit to having a soft spot for those foreigners wanting their own taste of the American dream (and now that I have put that in writing in a public domain, I guess I can never run for elected office). Many of the functions of the Department of Homeland Security (such as border control) would have continued as usual under a shutdown, but I highlight it here because I wonder how many people actually realize that this is one of the many services that mainstream America considers important that are paid for out of the federal coffers your tax dollars fund.
How about the National Institutes of Health? Would they be able to accept new patients? In a shutdown, would passport applications or renewals be processed? How about Federal Housing Authority loans? Would tax refund checks be sent?
I don’t mean to sound all DC-preachy, I just think that the federal government could use a little more love thrown its way because for all that it does that you hate (like collect taxes) it actually performs a lot of services that you just may like. And use.
I won’t say we are out of the shutdown waters forever. There may still be a discussion on shutdown chic. But at least for now, on Monday morning, federal workers will be riding the Metro and driving on our federal highway system, making their way to work. I am happy that the Giant Pandas will be fed, and of course, that at the U.S Capitol, it will be business as usual. If only business as usual included a little less partisan bickering. I think that is a style we can all agree needs to be shut down.