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The Real Lesson of the Shutdown

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The Real Lesson of the Shutdown

A sign telling the public that the National Zoo is closed due to the partial government shutdown in Washington, D.C., January 2, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

So much of government in Washington is nonessential.

One of the lessons of the Trump–Pelosi standoff on border security is that government shutdowns are a foolish way to resolve partisan disputes.

But the other lesson may be far more important. The partial shutdown, with agencies such as the Transportation, Agriculture, and State Departments, as well as other independent agencies, closed for business, demonstrated how irrelevant so much of our $4 trillion government is to the everyday lives of Americans.

As I traveled over the last several weeks to Florida, California, and many states in between, and asked people what they thought of the shutdown, many said they didn’t even know the government was shut down for more than a month. Their everyday lives were disrupted or inconvenienced only, if at all, in a trivial way. It turns out there are countless Americans who don’t watch CNN or MSNBC and so didn’t learn about the supposed horrors of agency closures.

This was a particularly painless shutdown for the average taxpayer because the essential activities of government were mostly unaffected. Seniors got their social-security checks. The military was protecting us. We got through the airports with minimal delays — until the last week when some TSA officials and air-traffic controllers weren’t on the job.

It was also telling that the only real “victims” of the shutdown (about whom the media obsessed) were 800,000 government employees who were furloughed. Yes, I know many people in Washington who work for the federal government who faced financial stress for several weeks (and I also know many for whom this was a deferred-pay vacation).

But wait a minute. What is the primary purpose of a government program or agency? To give workers a paycheck? I thought these agencies were in business to serve the taxpayers and provide important services for our economy and our citizens. Businesses don’t keep workers on the payroll if what they produce isn’t necessary to customers or if they don’t add to earnings. They certainly can’t do that if they are losing money. The federal government is $1 trillion in the red a year despite record revenues in 2018.

The media tried to find stories of major negative effects from the shutdown, but amazingly, their findings were pretty slim pickings. One of my favorites was that a climate-change report was going to be delayed. Say it ain’t so. The Wall Street Journal reported that paleontologists were forced to delay their dinosaur research. The horrors! Agencies like the Census may not be able to find out how many bathrooms you have in your house or how often you drive to work. But none of this is the government’s business anyway.

Yes, government is important, and liberals love to point to the very important things government does — like providing security at airports or food-safety inspections. But those public-safety functions are classified as “essential” government services. There were 800,000 government employees laid off due to the partial shutdown. Less than half are considered “essential.” Many of the other half are engaged in activities that are completely incidental to the lives of Americans in most parts of the country. I am not saying that all of these activities are not valuable. I am saying that for the benefit of taxpayers, congress and the president need to find out which are and which aren’t.

Now that the government is reopened, Congress needs to figure out what we can live without in terms of redundant, wasteful, and obsolete services. Congress could start by investigating the thousands upon thousands of examples of waste and misappropriation of funds. Why do federal-government workers get as many as 40 days a year in sick leave, vacation, holidays, personal days, and so on? Many private-sector workers don’t get benefits nearly this exorbitant.

Congress should also examine its spending priorities. Do we need an Urban Transit Agency? This should be conducted by cities and states, not the feds. Do we need a vast diplomatic corps at the State Department? Probably that could be cut in half. Do we need crop subsidies? Do we need the Defense Department to be spending money on climate change? Do we need to pay for foreign-aid programs or arrogant institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, all of which have done little to provide real and lasting economic aid to the poor around the world?

All of government today has more employees than our entire manufacturing sector in America. Twenty years ago, I wrote a book entitled: Government: America’s Number One Growth Industry. It still is, which happens to be the reason we have a $1 trillion deficit and $22 trillion debt. Institutions that lose money year after year after year can’t afford to be spending tens of billions of dollars on nonessential activities.

In October, Trump floated a proposal for every agency to cut at least 5 percent of its budget this year. The government shutdown has taught us how easy this should be.

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