As the White House, Democrats and Republicans dig in their heels over Obamacare, debt and fiscal matters, the impasse has become surreal, nasty, even callous. Some 800,000 federal workers were furloughed without pay, and the economic ripples caused many local businesses to lose revenues. The pain is palpable, but for government workers only temporary.
The House voted to restore the government employees' paychecks once the brinkmanship is over, and the Senate will certainly follow, as it has after previous shutdowns. The Defense Department has already brought back most of its 350,000 furloughed civilian workers.
However, those local private sector workers will never recoup their lost income — and that's only the leading edge of the economic tsunami.
In 2009, President Obama told Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, "Elections have consequences, and I won." Amid this year's impasse, he said "there will be no negotiations on the debt ceiling" and "I shouldn't have to offer anything" in dealing with Republicans. To ensure that Americans got the message, the National Park Service was told "to make life as difficult for people as we can," one frustrated ranger informed reporters.
The Park Service permitted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to lead an immigration rally on the National Mall, but closed the World War II Memorial to aging veterans who had arrived on Honor Flights. The vets breeched the "barackades," and the White House backed off — but only for veterans, and not elsewhere.
The Service padlocked parks and monuments all over America, disrupting long-planned, fully paid vacations. It blocked roads and parking lots to privately owned and operated sites like Mount Vernon and Claude Moore Colonial Farm Park in Virginia, ensuring that major events during one of their busiest months would be cancelled and much of their annual incomes would be lost forever. It even closed highway overlooks at the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, and booted people out of their legally leased homes on federal lands.
Amid it all, Mr. Obama said he opposes "extortion" and "hostage taking."
Elsewhere, federal lawmakers and bureaucrats have been busy for years. Thousand-page Dodd-Frank, Obamacare and other laws that no one read before enacting them were followed by 10,000-page regulatory decrees to interpret and impose the legislation. The IRS targeted political "enemies" and their financial supporters.
The Interior and Energy Departments and Environmental Protection Agency spend tens of billions of taxpayer dollars annually mandating and subsidizing wind, solar and biofuel programs — and exempting them from endangered species laws. Meanwhile, they wage war on coal, oil and gas, mining, logging, ranching, fossil fuel-based manufacturing and the communities that depend on those industries for livelihoods and living standards.
EPA alone issued over 1,900 new regulations since January 2009 — many of them based on questionable science, cherry-picked studies, unsupported assertions and even illegal experiments on humans. Ignoring clear congressional intent and federalism principles, it usurped numerous state air and water programs. It is promulgating carbon dioxide rules that will affect everything we eat, make, ship and do.
It also engaged in 48 cleverly devised "sue and settle" arrangements. Environmentalist groups sued EPA, which then conducted closed-door negotiations that sympathetic judges approved. States, companies and other parties adversely affected by the decisions never had an opportunity to be heard, or even find out a lawsuit had been filed until it was over.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute calculates that government regulations, delays and red tape cost American businesses and families over $1.8 trillion annually. That's half the 2012 U.S. budget, and 10 percent of its gross domestic product. The impacts on employment are huge.
Official unemployment rates have fallen slightly, because millions have dropped out of the workforce, and millions of full-time jobs have been converted into more millions of 29-hour-per-week positions. Over fourteen million working age Americans are unemployed, involuntarily working part-time, for less pay than with their old jobs — or have given up looking. The percentage of unemployed blacks is double that for whites.
Incomes have fallen, poverty and homelessness have risen, the Bureau of Economic Research reports, and inflation-adjusted median household incomes are down 4.4 percent in four years: $2,200 out of $50,000 annually. Millions of families rely on welfare, unemployment and disability payments for a least part of their incomes.
Our national debt has soared six trillion dollars in four years. Our 2.5 percent annual economic growth is tepid, at best.
All of this means steadily declining quality of life for tens of millions of Americans. Factor in taxes and inflation, says the AP, and it's the largest decline in real personal disposable incomes in 50 years.
What is Washington doing about these "furloughs" and lost incomes?
No wonder few Americans sympathize much with the furloughed federales — and many question why we need two million federal bureaucrats and congressional staffers, cranking out more job-killing laws and regulations that do little to improve health, welfare or environmental quality, and much to diminish it.
Democrats, Republicans and the president need to negotiate like adults, fix Obamacare, trim the budget, rein in the regulatory behemoth — and restore our nation's ability to do what it once did so well: innovate, create jobs, attribute dignity and responsibility to work and make the pursuit of happiness available to all.
Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow and author of "Eco-Imperialism: Green Power Black Death" (Merril, 2010)