Tax Analysts Blog

Two Cheers for a Government Shutdown

Posted on Sep 17, 2013

If we’re lucky, the federal government will shut down two weeks from today. It won’t be pretty, and it will be expensive. (As the Congressional Research Service recently pointed out, flicking the lights on and off isn't free.)

But a shutdown might actually be good for us. Specifically, it might encourage voters to wrestle with a crucial issue: Is government really worth what it costs?

The odds of a shutdown seem pretty good at this point. Stan Collender, one of Washington’s most astute budget watchers, puts them at 60 percent. Of course, not every government agency will lock the doors at the end of September. Many functions will be exempt, including national defense, air traffic control, and key financial regulatory agencies.

But many federal offices will go dark. If you need something from the government after the first of October – like a passport, for instance, or help completing a form – then good luck to you; if an agency isn't involved in the immediate protection of lives and property, it won't be open.

And people will notice. Not just people who work for the government (or sell it things). But plain ol' regular people, too -- people who vote.

Democrats are counting on this visibility. Polls indicate that voters will blame Republicans for a shutdown, and history suggests much the same thing. But Democrats should be careful. Public opinion is a fickle thing, and just because Bill Clinton "won" the last round of closures doesn’t mean that today's Democrats will be as lucky (or as politically skilled).

But if the political fallout from a closure is uncertain, one thing is a pretty safe bet -- shutting down the government will jumpstart arguments about the value of government.

And that would be a good and necessary thing. Lots of data show that Americans are unaware of the myriad ways in which government touches their lives. There’s nothing like shutting things down for a while to clarify matters a bit.

Americans complain all the time about the dysfunctional nature of American government. Why can’t politicians stop arguing? Why can't they get anything done? And why do they have to be so relentlessly irritating?

The answer, of course, is gridlock. But gridlock is actually a symptom, not a cause, of our more fundamental problems. Dysfunction in Washington is a product of confusion in the voting booth. Americans are deeply divided -- among themselves but also within themselves -- about the central issues of our time: What should government do and how much are we willing to pay for it?

Sure, I understand that gridlock is partly a function of gerrymandered House districts. But that won’t be true come November, when Americans are likely to hand the Senate to the GOP. And the gerrymandered House is a reflection of polarized government at the state level, where Americans are also arguing about the role of government in society.

Americans are clearly skeptical about the value of government. Republicans have capitalized on -- and amplified -- that skepticism to engineer their own electoral victories. Which is what conservative parties are supposed to do (or at least what they can be expected to do).

The real failure belongs to Democrats. As the ostensible champions of activist government, they have done a remarkably poor job of defending it. Sure, they've gone to the mat for some elements of federal spending, especially entitlements. But Republicans will defend entitlements, too, at least much of the time. So that's hardly a show of Democratic bravery.

Democrats have been much less willing to defend discretionary government spending -- the kind of spending that will grind to a halt during a shutdown. The discretionary portion of the federal budget has been slashed to the bone in recent years, and it's slated for more slashing in the years ahead.

Those cuts are bad for the country in any number of ways. But until Democrats make the case against them, they'll keep coming.

And here’s the most important point: Defending the value of discretionary spending also means defending the taxes that pay for it. Yet Democrats have been unwilling to defend taxation for decades. Ronald Reagan really was a transformative president -- he changed not only the way Republicans talked about taxes, but the way Democrats talked about them, too.

Democrats have always liked taxing the rich. But for decades, they understood that you couldn’t tax only the rich. Anyone who thinks seriously about solving our long-term budget problems comes to the inescapable conclusion that taxes are going up for everyone. At least they will be going up if we hope to continue with a federal government that looks anything like the one we have today.

Democrats have to embrace that fact. They have to defend the value proposition of progressive government, not just the feel-good politics of progressive taxation.

A government shutdown won’t make that happen. But if we’re lucky, it might remind Democrats that arguments for government -– and the taxes we use to fund it -– are crucial. And maybe even winnable.

Read Comments (1)

edmund dantesSep 18, 2013

"The discretionary portion of the federal budget has been slashed to the bone
in recent years,"

Oh no it hasn't. There's boatloads of fat in there, hundreds of obsolete
programs that we for some reason can't just terminate, as we should. The
Democrats have become adept at aiming cuts at things people like--national
parks--and protecting at all costs the wasteful bureaucracies that everyone
hates. Do we really need to federally fund studies of the sex lives of snails,
or whatever the latest golden fleece winner is? How about if rich people pay
for their own television programming, and we end the federal funding of the
corporation for public broadcasting? It may not be big money, but it is
symptomatic of a mindset that has let to shocking waste of tax dollars at the
federal level.

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