What Was ‘Essential’ and What Wasn’t: The Government Shutdown in Perspective

By Mattea Kramer and Jo Comerford, the research director and executive director, respectively, at National Priorities Project. They authored A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget and serve as regular commentators for media outlets across the country. Cross posted from TomDispatch

On a damp Friday morning 11 days into the government shutdown, a “few dozen” truckers took to the Capital Beltway in a demonstration with the Twitter hashtag #T2SDA (Truckers to Shut Down America).  They wanted to tell lawmakers they were angry, launch an impeachment campaign against the president, and pressure Congress to end itself.

They were on a “ride for the Constitution,” protesting big government and yet the opinion polls were clear.  In fact, the numbers were stunning.  One after another, they showed that Americans opposed the shutdown and were hurting because of it.  At that moment, according to those polls, nearly one in three Americans said they felt personally affected not by too much government, but by too little, by the sudden freeze in critical services.

In reality, that government shutdown was partial and selective. Paychecks, for example, kept flowing to the very lawmakers who most fervently supported it, while the plush congressional gym with its heated pool, paddleball courts, and flat-screen televisions remained open. That’s because “essential” services continued, even as “nonessential” ones ceased. And it turned out that whether the services you cared about were essential or not was a matter of just who got to do the defining.  In that distinction between what was necessary and what wasn’t, it was easy enough to spot the values of the people’s representatives. And what we saw was gut-wrenching. Stomach-churning.

Prioritized above all else were, of course, “national security” activities, deemed beyond essential under the banner of “protecting life and property.”  Surveillance at the National Security Agency, for instance, continued, uninterrupted, though it was liberated from its obviously nonessential and, even in the best-funded of times, minimal responsibility to disclose those activities under the Freedom of Information Act.  Such disclosure was judged superfluous in a shutdown era, while spying on Americans (not to speak of Brazilians, Mexicans, Europeans, Indians, and others around the planet) was deemed indispensible.

Then there was the carefully orchestrated Special Operations Forces mission in Libya to capture a terror suspect off the streets of Tripoli in broad daylight, proving that in a shutdown period, the U.S. military wasn’t about to shut off the lights. And don’t forget the nighttime landing of a Navy SEAL team in Somalia in an unsuccessful attempt to capture a different terrorist target. These activities were deemed essential to national survival, even though the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack are, at the moment, estimated at around one in 20 million. Remember that number, because we’ll come back to it.

Indeed, only for a brief moment did the shutdown reduce the gusher of taxpayer dollars, billions and billions of them, into the Pentagon’s coffers. After a couple days in which civilian Defense Department employees were furloughed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 90% of them could resume work because they “contribute to morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.” This from the crew that, according to Foreign Policy, went on a jaw-dropping, morale-boosting $5 billion spending spree on the eve of the shutdown to exhaust any remaining cash from the closing fiscal year, buying spy satellites, drones, infrared cameras and, yes, a $9 million sparkling new gym for the Air Force Academy, replete with CrossFit space and a “television studio.”

Furloughing Children

Then there were the nonessential activities.

In Arkansas, for instance, federal funds for infant formula to feed 2,000 at-risk newborn babies were in jeopardy, as were 85,000 meals for needy children in that state. Nutrition for low-income kids was considered nonessential even though one in four children in this country doesn’t have consistent access to nutritious food, and medical research makes it clear that improper nutrition stunts brain architecture in the young, forever affecting their ability to learn and interact socially. Things got so bad that a Texas couple dug into their own reserves to keep the program running in six states.

If children in need were “furloughed,” so were abused women. Across the country, domestic violence shelters struggled to provide services as federal funds were cut off. Some shelters raised spare change from their communities to keep the doors open. According to estimates, as many as six million women each year are victims of domestic violence. On average in this country, three women are murdered by an intimate partner every day.

But funding for domestic violence protection: nonessential.

Funds for early childhood education, too, were shut off. Seven thousand low-income kids from 11 states were turned away. Their “head start” was obviously less than essential, even though evidence shows that early education for at-risk children is the best way to help them catch up with their wealthier peers in cognition and adds to their odds of staying out of prison in later life.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wasn’t accepting new patients because of the shutdown. Typically 200 new patients arrive every week for experimental treatment. On average around 30 of them are children, 10 of whom have cancer.

Cancer, in fact, is the leading cause of death among children ages one to 14.  But treatment for them didn’t qualify as essential. Unlike fighting terrorism — remember the less-likely-than-being-struck-by-lightning odds of one in 20 million — treating kids with cancer didn’t make the cut as “protecting life and property.”

A father of two young girls in the town of Eliot, Maine, said to a National Priorities Project staffer in disbelief, “If even one kid can’t get cancer treatment, isn’t that enough to end the shutdown?”

Let this be the last time we find ourselves on the wrong side of that question. Because every day we as a nation allowed our lawmakers to keep the government closed was a day in which we as a people were complicit in replying “no.”

Let this be the last time that a couple dozen Tea Party truckers are the only ones angry enough to take to the streets. The vast majority of Americans, whatever their anger when faced with pollsters or TV news interviewers, took this shutdown lying down, perhaps imagining — incorrectly — that they were powerless.

Let this be the last time we allow ourselves such lethargy. After all, there are 243 million Americans old enough to vote, which means 243 million ways to demand a government that serves the people instead of shutting them out.  Keep in mind that in the office of every member of Congress is a staffer tracking constituent calls. And what those constituents say actually matters in how legislators vote. They know that a flood of angry telephone calls from their home districts means legions of angry constituents ready to turn out in the next election and possibly turn them out of office.

Shutting Down Taxes

Americans, however, didn’t get angry enough to demand an end to the shutdown, perhaps at least in part because poisonous rhetoric had convinced many that the government was nothing more than a big, wasteful behemoth — until, at least, it shut down on them. Think of these last weeks as a vivid lesson in reality, in the ways that every American is intimately connected to government services, whether by enjoying a safe food and water supply and Interstate highways, or through Meals on Wheels, cancer treatment, or tuition assistance for higher education, not to speak of Social Security checks and Medicare.

Deep in the politics of the shutdown lies another truth: that it was all about taxes — about, to be more specific, the unwillingness of the Republicans to raise a penny of new tax revenue, even by closing egregious loopholes that give billions away to the richest Americans.  Simply shutting down the tax break on capital gains and dividends (at $83 billion annually) would be more than enough to triple funding for Head Start, domestic violence protection, the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program, and cancer care at the NIH.

So let this be the last time we as a nation let our elected officials cut nutrition assistance for vulnerable children at the same moment that they protect deep tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporations. And let’s call recent events in Washington just what they are: breathtaking greed paired with a callous lack of concern for the most vulnerable among us.

It’s time to create a roll of dishonor and call out the lawmakers who supported the shutdown, knowing just what was involved: Mark Meadows (North Carolina, 11th congressional district), Walter Jones (NC-3), Rodney Davis (IL-13), John Mica (FL-7), Daniel Webster (FL-10), Jim Gerlach (PA-6), Justin Amash (MI-3). And that’s just to start a list that seems never to end.

Such representatives obviously should not be reelected, but we need a long-haul strategy as well — the unsexy yet necessary systemic set of changes that will ensure our government truly represents the people. Gerrymandered district lines must be redrawn fairly, which means that citizens in each state will have to wrest control over redistricting from biased political bodies. California has set the example. Then the big money must be pulled out of political campaigns, so that our politicians learn how to be something other than talented (and beholden) fundraisers.

Finally, we must build, person by person, an electorate that’s informed enough about how our government is supposed to work to fulfill its responsibility in this democracy: to ensure, that is, that it operates in the best interests of the broadest diversity of Americans.

Ahead will be long battles. They’ll take years. And it will be worth it if, in the end, we can give the right answer to that father who asked a question that should have been on everyone’s lips.

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  1. LucyLulu

    “Finally, we must build, person by person, an electorate that’s informed enough about how our government is supposed to work to fulfill its responsibility in this democracy: to ensure, that is, that it operates in the best interests of the broadest diversity of Americans.”

    This is the critical portion of the article.

    Living in Southern Teaville, USA, these legislators wouldn’t have the support of a majority of their constituents if people understood the issues and that they were voting against their interests. If asked, over 40% of those who collect public benefits are unaware that they do. They don’t know that Carolina Care is the same as Medicaid. They don’t know that food stamps is federally funded since it’s administered locally, and doesn’t those nice women at the church bring granny her only hot and balanced meals? Some don’t even realize that social security is a federal program.

    What they do know is what they hear, and they are told what is needed to get their vote. They hear that people who are lazy and don’t want to work are stealing what little they have and worked hard all their lives to get. The stuff they deserve and were promised is all being given away to low-life criminals. Unemployment is still higher than average here and they don’t want “the Mexicans” getting the jobs they need.

    I’m sure they’d vote differently if they knew it meant their unemployment benefits and Social Security and Medicare would be cut. They have no problems with raising taxes on millionaires. In 2010 and 2012 local messaging was one-sided. While the right extremists rallied voters, the progressives sulked over having lost the single-payer battle. As long as conservatives hold their legislators’ feet to the fire and show up disproportionately for midterm elections, while few are holding Democrats accountable for stances against policies still up for play…. or willing to recognize those who support progressive policies, we’ll see the erosion of progressive policies.

    1. Massinissa

      “while few are holding Democrats accountable for stances against policies still up for play”

      Pretty sure you should have replaced ‘few’ with ‘none’

      1. James Levy

        My issue with this is that it is contradictory. People are castigated for not going to the polls and allowing Tea Party nudniks to get elected, while on the other hand they are castigated for not hold Democrat’s feet to the fire. Well, in our system, the only way to hold Democrat’s feet to the fire (other than being a millionaire and defunding their campaign) is to threaten to not vote for them if they don’t support your agenda.

        So, if I stay home because my Rep is a corporatist buffoon, and the Tea Party yabo wins, did I do right, or did I do wrong?

        1. Banger

          Excellent point! The missing ingredient is organization. If a cohesive body with a letterhead, a bank account, staff and so on coordinated a campaign of not voting for the Dem candidate unless certain demands were met then not voting or voting would have great power in the political arena.

          As I’ve been saying for a long time, the left in America from radical to center-left has refused to organize and refused to play the political game that has to be played. Why? Because most people I know on the left believe that politics is about presenting various ideas to the public and believing that the most pragmatic and logical one will win the day. That’s not how politics works and I suggest that most of the left is self-deluded and is too afraid or too “refined” to enter into hardball politics which is the only politics that exists–even Gandhi and King practiced it.

          I don’t want to say this is “bad” perhaps most of us should become contemplatives, mystics or healers instead of warriors–who knows?

          1. from Mexico


            Knowledge, rectitude and good ideas fall well short of the mark.

            Jacques Barzun, writing of the French Revolution, had this to say about the matter:

            The men and ideas that produced this cascade of outcomes are many and cannot be given individual notice here. But one condition of cultural import can be suggested. The men who came to lead factions or who gained power for a time lacked mature political talent. To govern well requires two distinct kinds of ability: political skill and the administrative mind. Both are very rare, either in combination or separately. The former depends on sensing what can be done, at what momeent, and how to move others to want it. Anyone who has served open-eyed on a committee knows how many “good ideas” are proposed by well-meaning members that could not possibly be carried out, because what is proposed consists only of results, with no means in sight for getting from here to there. After serving on a local government body, Bernard Shaw guessed that perhaps 5 percent of mankind possesses political ability.

            But one can be a true politico and be at the same time incapable of administration. To administer is to keep order in a situaiton that continually tends toward disorder. In running any organization, both people and things have to be kept straight from day to day. Otherwise, workable ideas will not work. More than talent, genius, is required to set up a national system of administration.

            –JACKQUES BARZUN, From Dawn to Decadence

            1. Nathanael

              I have some political ability — it’s mostly a matter of sensing the zeitgeist and understanding the possible — but I’m god-awful at administration, and I hate doing the organizing. So.

      1. Nathanael

        It’s hard to hold Democrats accountable when the wild-eyed lunatics running the Republican party are still getting substantial percentages of the vote. It would be hard even in a proportional representation system — it’s damn near impossible in a first-past-the-post system.

        Liquidate the Republican Party the way the Whigs were liquidated, and you may begin to see things move.

    2. Banger

      I think the problem with the red areas of the country center around two things: 1) a culture of ignorance and denial that extends into their daily lives and includes cultivation of resentment, anger and other negative emotions as always justified; 2) low feelings of compassion due to an undeveloped moral sense and the anti-compassionate teachings of conservative churches that often ignore or radically misinterpret the Gospels.

      1. The Heretic

        Perhaps I would add another factor. The prosperity of most Americans belonging to the lower 90% has been declining due to trade liberalization and the neoliberal government agenda over the past 35 years. Communities and careers that were once prosperous and stable, have become dramatically affected as decent paying jobs and stable careers have been outsourced away to China and Mexico. Americans as a nation strongly identify with work and material prosperity, hence loss of these external icons would result in severe psychological pain and distress. Those people in those communities would become angry and resentful, and are looking for a scapegoat to blame for their troubles and a sense of identity to give them a sense of value and belonging. Hence they flock to any party that will confirm their identity and which castigates the ‘other’ as a source of their problems.

        Reminds me of Weimar Germany….

  2. Expat

    Superb analysis. In other words, we got a glimpse of the so-called government-in-a-bathtub that the conservatives have been campaigning for for the past 40 years (albeit with social security and medicare, for now).

  3. Jill

    I have a question. Who made the decisions about what constituted essential services? Was that the president? Was it Congressional Democrats and Republicans. Was it all of the above.

    Thank you for breaking the values of our elites down so clearly!

    1. from Mexico

      Yep. I think the blush is finally coming off the “small government” rose.

      When our elite right-wingers and elite not-so-right-wingers squeal “small government,” what they really mean is small government for thee, and big government for me.

    2. Banger

      I think it’s a kind of consensus thing. The one area of political life where there is almost universal support is “supporting” the military. Public opinion polls show that the military rates very high as an institution which most other institutions rate very low. I think the priorities genuinely reflect the attitudes of the vast majority of the American people.

      One thing people tend to miss is that one reason the U.S. has so many military adventures and has declared a permanent war against “terror” (how those on the left who support such a notion can avoid the obvious Orwellian implications is beyond me). In fact there is no “enemy” in my view (street gangs or drug cartels are more dangerous) that warrants a military response–I think this is obvious to those that are brave enough to look at the actual facts. The reason we collectively choose to ignore evidence is that unconsciously we need something that brings us together and war and the war mentality does this very well. We can’t hold together as a society without such a thing. We need war even if it’s pretend to maintain the Union. That is why we are always declaring “war” on cancer, drugs, terror and so on.

      1. from Mexico

        Banger says:

        The one area of political life where there is almost universal support is “supporting” the military.

        While that may be true, I don’t believe that “support the troops” automaticatly translates to support for perpetual war.

        Just like with the “small government” cant, I think the blush is coming off the “support the military” rose as well. “Support the troops” may very well mean keeping the troops safe at home and not sending them off on quixotic neocon adventures. If this is not so, then how do you explain the overwhemlming public opposition to Obama’s and his fellow neocons’ Syrian adventure?

        Despite the abiding religous-like faith in the “engineers of consent,” there are limits to what can be achieved with doublespeak, doubletalk and doublethink.

        The thing to read is Hannah Arendt’s essay “Lying in Politics.”

        1. Banger

          No, the military identity need not be dominant but it has been for over 70 years in the U.S.A. It is to the point now that it has been tightly ingrained in the national consciousness and (more importantly) in the national unconscious.

          The idea is that there are external threats out there is very appealing as a source of national identity–we may not fully understand these threats but that’s who we are.. War is uncomplicated–it is about “them” and “us.” while the actual issues we face are complicated and most people have a hard time dealing with complexity and are very vulnerable to and hungry for simple solutions. But I think this will probably change and is reflected by the appeal of popular entertainments that represent characters with complex motivations and ambiguous moral stances.

    3. Doug Terpstra

      Good questions; answer: yes, all of the above. But the Executive branch has primary control of selective shutdown triage, so Obama’s conspicuous absence from this post seems like a glaring omission to me. That can’t be unintentional. Why does this man always get a pass?

  4. docg

    Far be it from me to say “I told you so.” But I’ll say it anyhow: I told you so. If you doubt me, check out this blog post from back in Feb. 2011, the last time we went through essentially the same rigmarole: http://amoleintheground.blogspot.com/2011/02/reading-tea-leaves.html

    Here’s the gist:

    “No WAY are the puppet masters going to allow their puppets to force “big government” into a great big huge default. Their dirty little secret is that they need big government. But they need it to do THEIR bidding, not the bidding of US citizens. Which is why they invented the Tea Party in the first place. But the Tea Partyers have gotten drunk on the illusion of power. They actually think THEY are running things — but they are not. So there is no WAY the debt limit will not be raised.”

    Last time, as we know, Obama blinked, and we had the God awful compromise known as the “Sequester.” This time Obama wised up and refused to give an inch (God bless him). So our brave Tea Partiers were faced with exactly the situation I describe in the above-referenced post. Read it and weep folks. DocG got something right (God bless him).

    1. Synopticist

      Yes, that was pretty much my reading of the situation as well. The Tea party activists might think they’re independent, but actually they’re just on a fairly long lead which the oligarchs can yank around if their dogs get too out of control. The thing to bear in mind is that the money IS the base. Plus the dems are pussies, as you pointed out.

  5. Wendy

    The idea that because we can vote and because we can call our Representatives, means we are NOT powerless, is nothing but a comforting illusion.
    Even here in Blue Jersey, the special election this week was essentially between (Wall-Street-lovin’-consummate-politician) Democrat Cory Booker, and a “Republican” tea bagger. Oh, and 5-6 third party candidates, one of which I voted for, with depressingly few of my fellow resident. I exercise what the author calls “my power” – I vote and I call my reps. Yet, he only thing that changes is that Washington (and even NPR) keeps heaving ever right-ward.
    Our system is broken, or rather highly successfully captured, so us little people have literally no power. (Our consolation prize? We get to “vote with our wallets.” Which of course is not democracy, or representation, or anything other than consumption.) Maybe when enough people swallow this hard truth, a revolution can begin.

    1. savedbyirony

      I really love this piece. It’s passionately written while still getting the point across thoroughly and clearly. As a now dedicated reader to this political, financial and economic blog who is trying to build means to concretely change our system, i wonder if Naked Capitalism could include in its coverage and analysis more essays dealing with labor AND labor movements/unions. Surley, though the labor landscape is very different from past times, people must still look to pushing for social reforms through organized and organizing workers of all sorts. The elites have the wealth but the workers still have the numbers.

  6. Doug Terpstra

    Why is Obama conspicuously absent here? Is it not the Office of Management and Budget (the White House) and the Commander-in-Chief who largely determine what stays open and what shuts down in a (contrived) emergency? And isn’t the US Office of Personnel Management , with a more granular control of staffing, a POTUS appointee? Why is Obama getting another pass?

    This post takes a “mistakes were made” approach to perverse funding priorities, but with implicit blame on congressional Republicans — and no mention at all of Obama. Yet when it comes to selective budgeting—choosing unconstitutional surveillance, illegal international kidnapping raids, increased funding to al-Qaeda-allied rebels in Syria, and so on, as essential, above nonessential things like Amber Alert, Head Start, NIH, food stamps (to stop Nov 1), WIC, national parks, etc., the buck really stops at the president’s desk.

    This is not to excuse the RP or TP, but it seems like more than a glaring omission that selective closures are not laid first and foremost at Obama’s feet. From authors who wrote the book on Federal funding, this post smells like veal-pen propaganda — not surprising, I suppose, from a site that hosts Opologists like Rebecca Solnit.

    In federal shutdown, deciding who’s essential is essentially a guess (McClatchy)

    Officially, the calls are made based on guidance issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which bases its recommendations, in part, on a Justice Department opinion authored in 1980 by then-President Jimmy Carter’s attorney general. That determination has been interpreted to define essential activities as those that “protect life and property.”

    ”Disgusting!’ Ranger reveals Shutdown Orders

    Tasked with selecting which functions of government should be shut down, the Obama administration created a firestorm of negative publicity this week when it ordered rangers to barricade otherwise fully accessible public areas in Washington, including war memorials.
    An angry Park Service ranger indicated to Washington Times columnist Wesley Pruden that there is a political motive behind the closure of the open-air memorials.

    “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can,” he said. “It’s disgusting.”

    Funding Jihadists while Denying Military Benefits: We can fund al-Qaeda but we can’t fund the families of our war dead? (National Review)

    And, you’ll be pleased to know, supporting the Syrian “rebels” is a high enough priority that it’s not part of the 17 percent of the federal government affected by the “shutdown.”
    So support for the Syrian jihad remains unaffected by the shutdown, just like the Capitol Hill gym and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” website. Obama did manage, however, to cut off death benefits for the families of American troops killed fighting for our country.

    Crisis: USDA Orders States to Withhold Electronic Food Stamps (Tea Party)

  7. chicagogal

    People in this country don’t vote because they know their vote doesn’t matter. They don’t call their Congressman or Senator or President because their call is answered with indifference. I’ve called mine and not once has their staffer or intern asked for my name, where I live or my phone number, and they don’t sound like they care about what I have to say. When you multiply that by thousands or millions, well, there you are.

    The perfect example of this is when the late Republican Congressman Henry Hyde from IL-6 said in a local news interview that the majority of his constituents who contacted his office did not want him to vote for something (can’t remember exactly, but think it was the vote to invade Iraq in late 2002), but that he would be voting against them and with his party instead. That’s what people see, hear and experience, so they come away with the impression that their voice does not matter. Then they tell everyone they know and a majority of them are then lost to the process as well.

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