THE CLOCK IS TICKING down to a shutdown of the federal government. Instead of coming up with a solution that would keep U.S. offices open, workers on the job and the economy running, leaders seem more interested in figuring out how to affix blame to each other. Barring a sudden detente Friday, Washingtonians, federal workers across the country, families and students who have planned trips, and others will awake Saturday staring at the prospect of hardship and confusion.
Perhaps it’s time to remind President Obama (D), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that closing the government is not some theoretical political exercise but rather a trial that will impact real people.
Negotiations on a fiscal 2011 budget were continuing , but Democrats and Republicans appeared unable to budge on certain issues. The White House and Senate Democrats spurned a short-term spending bill offered by House Republicans, while the GOP stubbornly insisted on mixing abortion and other social issues into the money debate. What was so exasperating was that there was relative agreement on much of the budget; with a relatively tiny portion in dispute. If no agreement is reached by midnight Friday, the federal government will shut Saturday.
The effects would be widespread. An estimated 800,000 of the 1.9 million-strong federal civilian workforce would be idled. National parks would close; that means spring campers shut out of Yosemite or Yellowstone and events commemorating the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter, S.C., called off. Those relying on loan guarantees from the Federal Housing Administration would have to put their house-buying plans on hold. Forget about getting a passport. If you filed your income tax return by mail, don’t expect your refund anytime soon.
The most significant impacts would, of course, be felt in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs, where about 11 percent of the area workforce is employed by the federal government and a third of the region’s economy depends on the government. In addition, the D.C. government would be forced to shut down because of the absurdity of its local budget being technically appropriated by Congress as part of the federal budget process. The city’s chief financial officer has estimated the cost of a federal shutdown on the District alone could range from $1 million to $6 million per week in lost tax revenue, depending upon whether workers are ever reimbursed for lost pay.
There is a particular pain to a shutdown in April, when the nation’s capital is at its most glorious. At the Smithsonian, where spring break traditionally brings throngs of schoolchildren and the start of the tourist season, workers were getting ready to print “Closed Due to Government Shutdown” signs; a spokeswoman, no doubt relating a scenario being played out in countless households across the country, told the New York Times of a desperate call from a Cincinnati woman who had planned a big family vacation here and wanted to know what to do.
We hope that in the next few hours the nation’s political leaders will have woken up to what they were sent to Washington to do; namely, manage the government. In that so-called best-case scenario, the government still would have wasted uncounted hours and dollars preparing to shut down. As to the worst case — it is no way to run a country.