Everyone agrees that sequestration is asinine, but Washington is increasingly resigned to it. Other deadlines have been met by fevered last-minute negotiations and, mercifully, avoidance of calamity. This time there’s less urgency and more sighs. There is an upside to it, though: an abject lesson on what government does.
At a time when Americans are convinced that foreign aid is a significant part or the budget—the median answer in one survey in 2010 was 25 percent of the budget—it’ll be a good object lesson for people to see that government means planes landing safely, meat being inspected, Yellowstone being kept open. Yes, most of what the government does is write checks and defend us, “an insurance company with an Army,” so the saying goes. But it does a lot more.
Sure, the agencies and departments could juggle accounts for a while to prevent the most egregious cuts to discretionary spending. I outline that here. We should be wary of the "firemen first" principle, where agencies cut or threaten to cut their most popular programs first.
But if agencies and departments can’t or won’t juggle their books, hey, let people see what government really means. As with sanitation or teacher strikes in big cities, it won’t necessarily endear taxpayers to feds, although being furloughed is more likely to prompt sympathy than going on strike. But it would at least be a teachable moment. There’s something sobering about aircraft carriers that won’t sail and forest rangers who won’t be paid to protect.
The last time I can think of such an educational moment was not the short-lived government shutdown on the '90s, but the Oklahoma City bombing. Who died in the blast? IRS officials, Secret Service agents, General Services Administration workers. President Clinton offered a reflection on the victims, "many there who served the rest of us, who worked to help the elderly and the disabled, who worked to support our farmers and our veterans, who worked to enforce our laws and to protect us. Let us say clearly, they served us well, and we are grateful," he said.
In 2001, looking back on the bombing, Clinton said: “And I had, like every politician, on occasion, gotten upset by some example of government waste or something the way we all do, and referred derisively to government bureaucrats. And I promised myself that I would never use those two words together for the rest of my life. I would treat those people who serve our country with respect, whether they're in uniform, in law enforcement, firefighter, nurses, any other things.” I'm not comparing the tragedy of Oklahoma City to sequestration. One is evil; the other buffoonery. But they each have the effect of making you realize what government employees do.
It’s easy to forget that government workers include Seal Team Six or the nurse at Veterans Affairs or the border agent.
That’s not to say that government doesn’t piss away lots of money. But it’s worth being clear-eyed, going into the age of austerity, about what it is we’re paying or not paying for.