The Sledgehammer Politics of the GOP

Radical Republicans don’t want limited government. They just want to blow the whole thing up.

Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Rep Darrell Issa, R-CA, speaks during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Benghazi attacks in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on September 19, 2013. 
National Journal
Norm Ornstein
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Norm Ornstein
Oct. 16, 2013, 7:56 p.m.

Warn­ing: I am go­ing to vent again. I write this be­fore the fi­nal votes on the Sen­ate pack­age, but after the House Re­pub­lic­ans ca­reened from one farce to an­oth­er, and after an­oth­er rat­ings agency, Fitch, threatened a U.S. cred­it down­grade based on the same com­pel­ling lo­gic as Stand­ard & Poor’s in 2011 — that the real con­cern is not de­fault but our ex­traordin­ary polit­ic­al dys­func­tion. I thought about yet an­oth­er column on this pro­cess, but real­ized that it would be both re­pet­it­ive and un­timely. So I will vent about something else.

The costs of the pro­longed gov­ern­ment shut­down are broad and deep. They are there in na­tion­al se­cur­ity and home­land se­cur­ity. The tough sanc­tions we have in place against Ir­an are not be­ing fully en­forced; many of the gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees who mon­it­or vi­ol­a­tions and en­sure the sanc­tions are in place are fur­loughed. Sup­port per­son­nel who help on home­land and na­tion­al se­cur­ity are not there. With Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health sci­ent­ists barred from their labs, the lab an­im­als used in crit­ic­al med­ic­al re­search ex­per­i­ments are left to their own devices; those who were in the middle of ex­per­i­ments or tri­als can­not be mon­itored, ren­der­ing the re­search use­less or set­ting it back by months. The mul­tiple private busi­nesses tied to tour­ism at na­tion­al parks — res­taur­ants, ho­tels, gift shops, river guides, gro­cery stores — are dev­ast­ated. And on and on. The hit on the eco­nomy, via less spend­ing, will re­duce our next quarter’s eco­nom­ic growth by a no­tice­able amount, made more no­tice­able be­cause it is oc­cur­ring at a time of eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion.

Then there are the hu­man costs. Some gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees have enough sav­ings to carry them through weeks of no pay. But large num­bers, like so many in the private sec­tor, live from paycheck to paycheck or have a very thin safety net. Na­tion­al Pub­lic Ra­dio’s Morn­ing Edi­tion re­cently did a poignant piece on a ca­reer em­ploy­ee at the Bur­eau of Pris­ons who is work­ing (every em­ploy­ee at the pris­on is es­sen­tial, for ob­vi­ous reas­ons) but get­ting no pay ex­cept for a pending check for the week be­fore the shut­down oc­curred. He es­tim­ated his nor­mal bi­weekly take-home pay at $1,300 — but the one-week check he will get will have full de­duc­tions taken out for the two weeks, leav­ing him with roughly $200. He has two kids in col­lege and said to NPR’s Steve In­s­keep, “How am I go­ing to pay my bills? What am I go­ing to do for child care? How do I put fuel in the truck? I mean, I have a pickup truck. I live in south­west­ern PA. You know, it’s $80 to fill that tank. There’s a whole range of things and the thing is, you can’t just call off. If you call off, you’re mess­ing with the per­son that’s on shift right now. He can’t go home.”

This gov­ern­ment work­er will ul­ti­mately re­ceive his back pay. But he and nu­mer­ous oth­ers, in­clud­ing many who make much less, in­clud­ing many Cap­it­ol Po­lice ap­plauded by mem­bers of Con­gress after the har­row­ing Oct. 4 chase and shoot­ing, may have to lose money by dip­ping in­to sav­ings, max­ing out on cred­it cards and pay­ing ex­or­bit­ant in­terest, or go­ing to pay­day lenders. Those costs will nev­er be paid back — and they are the people who can least af­ford it. Then there are the tens of thou­sands of people work­ing for gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors who have to lay off em­ploy­ees without pay. They will nev­er get paid back for the work they miss.

Dam­aging as the shut­down is for gov­ernance, it is minor com­pared with the long-term dam­age of the se­quester. The FBI has had to re­duce its fo­cus on white-col­lar and or­gan­ized crime to deal with the high­er, im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity of cy­ber­se­cur­ity. The food-in­spec­tion in­fra­struc­ture has been hit, re­du­cing the num­ber of in­spect­ors in the U.S. and in for­eign plants that ship food to the United States. This will un­doubtedly lead to more out­breaks of sal­mon­ella and E. coli, with a weakened Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol less able to cope with the epi­dem­ics. Ba­sic re­search, as I have writ­ten be­fore, is tak­ing dev­ast­at­ing hits — start­ing with NIH but in­clud­ing DARPA and every oth­er area done primar­ily by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Some of the dam­age will nev­er be re­paired. And the na­tion’s eco­nomy will grow more slowly, adding to our de­fi­cits and debt.

I was amused this week to see George F. Will’s column, head­lined in the on­line edi­tion, “The Se­quester: The Ham­mer Re­pub­lic­ans Hold.” Will wrote ap­prov­ingly, “All House Re­pub­lic­ans should un­der­stand that the vic­tory won in the sum­mer of 2011 — the se­quester, achieved by Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell — still tor­ments Demo­crats.” But just a few weeks ago, Will had writ­ten a column titled “The Se­quester’s a Pub­lic Health Haz­ard.” In it he said, “NIH sci­ent­ists seek in­tensely prac­tic­al, mean­ing pre­vent­ive and thera­peut­ic, things that can save so­ci­ety more than any se­quester can.” Will is smart enough to hold these two views sim­ul­tan­eously; he is much smarter than the House Re­pub­lic­ans who laud the se­quester without a second’s con­cern about health re­search, dam­age to de­fense in­fra­struc­ture, or a de­cline in port in­spec­tions and bor­der patrols.

The den­ig­ra­tion of pub­lic em­ploy­ees — typ­i­fied by Rep. Dar­rell Issa’s vit­ri­ol dir­ec­ted at the IRS and Rep. Randy Neuge­bauer’s verbal as­sault on a park ranger for her work (without pay) at the World War II Me­mori­al, which was shut down be­cause of Neuge­bauer and his col­leagues — rep­res­ents a phe­nomen­on that is not new but is really aw­ful: the rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion of so many law­makers who don’t want lim­ited, but good, gov­ern­ment but in­stead want to blow the whole thing up. They may know not what they do, but sadly, they have the weapons to do it.

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