Skip to main content

Government shutdown is nothing to worry about

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
October 2, 2013 -- Updated 1509 GMT (2309 HKT)
The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed. The Statue of Liberty looms over visitors below on Liberty Island in New York Harbor on Sunday, October 13. The statue was closed to the public by the federal government's partial shutdown that began October 1, but reopened Sunday after the state of New York agreed to shoulder the costs of running the site during the shutdown. Many government services and agencies remain completely or partially closed.
HIDE CAPTION
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
Government shutdown: Sorry, we're closed
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matt Welch: Government shutdowns haven't mattered much in past, nor will this one
  • He says it's been bad politics for GOP, which played a good political hand badly
  • He says GOP spent energy on Obamacare instead of focusing on spending issues
  • Welch: But shutdown does open welcome discussion on what's "essential" spending.

Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America" (Public Affairs).

(CNN) -- The first thing to remember about federal government shutdowns is that they do not matter very much.

History does not now recall the three Democrat-led shutdowns during the Carter administration over using Medicaid dollars to fund abortions, even though their combined 28 days will almost certainly dwarf the Great Impasse of October 2013.

Even the most famous modern shutdown, the 21-day Newt Gingrich/Bill Clinton standoff of 1995-96, had effects that were felt most acutely by comparatively well-off federal workers, not their taxpayer bosses.

Matt Welch
Matt Welch

A recent Congressional Research Service summary of that event included among its headline impacts stuff like "National Institute of Standards and Technology was unable to issue a new standard for lights and lamps that was scheduled to be effective January 1, 1996, possibly resulting in delayed product delivery and lost sales." Probably the worst thing back then was that passports for Americans and visas for foreigners went unprocessed for three weeks, taking a temporary bite out of the tourism industry.

So when President Barack Obama says the shutdown will "throw a wrench into the gears of our economy" and put "the American people's hard-earned progress at risk," it is appropriate to treat such claims with skepticism. As we saw during the run-up to the March 1 sequestration trims in federal spending, politicians are incentivized by self-interest and unconstrained by shame in maximizing the hyperbole about what may happen if their ability to collect and redistribute our money is impeded even a little bit.

None of this, however, means that the shutdown is good politics. On that score, all recent public opinion research is unanimous: It isn't. As a Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday concluded, "American voters oppose 72-22% Congress shutting down the federal government to block implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare."

All summer and early fall, Republicans have played a good political hand badly. Americans don't like federal spending levels, don't like increasing the debt ceiling unaccompanied by spending cuts, are souring on President Obama and continue to be lukewarm at best toward his signature legislative accomplishment.

Rep. Hoyer: GOP refusing pay is a game
Mastermind behind the shutdown showdown
Analysis: Who will be blamed for shutdown?

This would suggest broad political support for keeping day-to-day federal spending levels (at most) as is, attaching some cuts to the inevitable debt-ceiling increase, and using the October 1 rollout of the Affordable Care Act as a teaching moment toward crafting policy and politics for legislative reform and eventually replacing it.

Instead of focusing on those popular means to achievable ends, Republicans spent this political season attempting a Hail Mary pass with a broken throwing arm. Trying to defund Obamacare through deadline negotiations in the House of Representatives is not only massively unpopular, but—even according to some of the most influential backers of the project—probably doomed from the start.

It appears unlikely at this writing that our latest government shutdown will end with much more than a relatively insignificant medical-device tax tweak to go along with yet another budgetary can-kicking exercise. By that time, it is plausible to assume, public opinion toward Republican negotiators will have further eroded, making it harder to get debt-ceiling concessions. Everyone, everywhere, will declare the whole sorry episode bad for America.

But is it really? Despite the soul-killing grotesqueness of divided-government brinkmanship, there are some potential upsides even to this dreary saga, particularly for those of us who prefer our government limited.

For starters, closing down Washington provides one of the only occasions to have a national discussion of what is and is not "essential" government work. At a time when entitlements, pensions and debt service will be swallowing ever-larger slices of the budgetary pie at all levels of government for as far as the eye can see, this is an exercise we'll all soon have to master.

Shutdown politics from 2011 and earlier this year also produced something many people thought they'd never see: a year-over-year trim in Defense Department spending signed onto by the Republican Party. As Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has observed, you cannot hope to limit the size of government if you do not also find some military spending to cut. Sequestration was the first in what will have to be many more such steps.

Even the maddening and deeply irresponsible budgetary governance by continuing resolution has produced a desirable result through undesirable means: an effective flat-lining of government spending. (Or as The Cato Institute's Daniel J. Mitchell puts it, "the federal government in the past two years has been wasting money at a slower rate.")

So, you don't have to squint too hard to see some positive side-benefits of D.C. dysfunction. But that doesn't make it any less desultory.

This year, for the first time since 2009, both the Senate and the House of Representatives fulfilled their legal requirement in passing an annual budget. It's long since time to supplement this minimal stab at responsibility with the legislative next step: a conference committee to hash out a compromise for consideration from the president.

If our federal government must careen from crisis to crisis, the least it can do is push the deadlines out to every 12 months. There are too many actually interesting things going on in this country to waste our energy watching professional hucksters argue over our money.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1246 GMT (2046 HKT)
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 0219 GMT (1019 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT