For the past week, it seems the only talk around the water cooler, the dinner table or the checkout line at grocery stores is the federal government’s partial shutdown, which, as I write, is going into its second week.
With all the opinionated bantering swirling around, I find it very difficult to think about anything else to write about today. I suspect most of you feel the same; it’s difficult to block out the noise and concentrate on our own personal and professional matters.
It’s particularly hard for most of us to understand exactly what has happened to bring us to this place, and what is likely to be the outcome. We’ve had government shutdowns in the past, but I can’t really remember much about them, so I decided to do a little research to get some perspective.
Here is a brief history of this whole process as I try to make some sense of it. I hope it helps you, too.
Let’s start with the basics: Congress has control of government spending, albeit with the approval of the president. It doesn’t always work, however, because government agencies sometimes buy on credit and then go to Congress to pass a bill to pay off the debt.
The Antideficiency Act of 1884 was passed to stop the practice of spending first and then getting permission. Federal employees who violate the law are subject to a variety of penalties, i.e., suspension from their duties or removal from office, and even fines or jail time.
Great idea, but that didn’t work, either, because Congress was so slow to approve budgets that some expenditures went for months without getting Congressional approval as part of the budget.
Keep in mind that no one has ever actually been jailed; Congress eventually would get around to funding the budgeted items. No harm, no foul!
President Jimmy Carter put an end to that practice in 1980, when his attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, threatened to prosecute anyone who ignored the Antideficiency Act. Then a year later, President Ronald Regan vetoed a continuing resolution that would have extended government spending beyond the end of the fiscal year, and that resulted in the first government shutdown.
Some workers were actually sent home, and a few agencies were closed, but a budget was signed and everything opened the next day.
The biggest shutdowns came during the Clinton administration — one for six days and another for 21 days. The last was in 1996.
I really don’t know if any departments were permanently defunded or of any other long-term effects. Suffice it to say that we’ve been through this before.
The bigger problem is the fight over the debt ceiling. Our government continues to add debt that will be paid for by our children and grandchildren.
The irony of these shutdown discussions can best be demonstrated by an article last week in The Washington Post, which exposed the use-it-or-lose-it spending habits of government agencies. Most wind up spending nearly 10 percent of their annual budget before the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30) lest they “lose” those allocations and risk defunding by that same amount in the next fiscal year.
According to David A. Fahrenthold, the author of the article, the Department of Veterans Affairs bought $562,000 worth of artwork, the Coast Guard spent $178,000 on furniture, and the USDA bought $114,000 worth of toner cartridges during the last week of September. The list goes on. And all of this while government deficits mount and debt piles up.
Federal employees aren’t the only people who are affected by such petty political posturing. For example, folks who live in small towns at the entrance to national parks (think Mount Rainier and nearby Ashford) struggle to make ends meet without the usual flow of tourist dollars.
And, more generally, the American people’s faith in government takes a hit every time we go through one of these political contests of will.
It makes one wonder just how essential the “nonessential” elements of government really are.Warren Zimmerman is the president of the Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce. For more information, call 253-851-6865 or visit www.gigharborchamber.com.