A shutdown of the federal government’s nonessential services is inevitable. While a last-minute agreement between President Obama and House Republicans could put off the day of reckoning for another week, the spending-level and policy-priority impasse looks like it cannot be resolved without sending thousands of bureaucrats on an unexpected vacation.
Democrats already have let slip their strategy is to force this conflict as a means of rallying public-sector unions and portraying Republicans as “extreme.” It’s a brilliant scheme - except that when the government pulls the plug on non-essential functions, nobody is likely to notice.
Most federal agencies that interact with the public will continue business as usual. Mail will be delivered like normal on Saturday. In fact, the U.S. Postal Service will continue all Saturday deliveries until this government agency finalizes its plans to take weekends off. When the government’s out of money, collecting cash is at the top of the list of essential functions. That means the Internal Revenue Service still wants to hear from you by April 18. “While we’re not going to have a full complement of operations, if the government were to shut down, the IRS will be accepting tax returns,” IRS Commissioner Douglas H. Shulman told the National Press Club on Thursday. “In the event of a shutdown, people really should file electronically because most of these returns are processed automatically and will not experience any delays. … Paper returns - there probably will be a delay in refunds.”
Fortunately for tax cheats and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, the agency’s army of auditors may be sent home. Flyers won’t be so lucky as the Transportation Security Administration promises a full complement of blue-gloved agents to inspect the intimate parts of old ladies and children. Power won’t be cut to the X-rated x-ray machines, and TSA officials confirmed that air marshals would continue to provide security services as normal. Security may actually be enhanced as terrorists in Muslim nations will not be able to obtain student visas during the shutdown.
Mostly, this shutdown will affect 800,000 bureaucrats whose jobs aren’t related to the safety, security and proper functioning of the government. They will have no choice but to enjoy some time off. Federal workers’ unions ensured that conscientious employees would never be allowed to work on a voluntary basis during a shutdown. Ethics rules also prevent most from taking a temporary job in the meantime. The District Department of Employment Services, which handles unemployment claims, promised to announce by Friday afternoon details about how nonessential federal workers might obtain unemployment benefits during the shutdown. Washington residents and commuters with private-sector jobs will enjoy a smooth, traffic-free ride in to work Monday morning.
A Congressional Research Service report on the 1996 shutdown suggested that 9 million park and museum visitors, 200,000 passport applications and 3,500 bankruptcy cases were also affected. Altogether, out of a population of 310 million, maybe 3 percent will notice a shutdown.
It’s unfortunate that tourists in the nation’s capital won’t be able to visit the White House as long as President Obama holds out against trimming a paltry $61 billion from the 2011 budget. It’s not clear how many of the affected museum and park visitors would be interested in paying their $6,100 share of the disputed funds to keep things open. Perhaps a shutdown will help some Americans realize that Big Government doesn’t come cheaply. More importantly, they may realize that doing without a handful of nonessential services may be a better idea than continuing to add to a near $14.3 trillion debt.