Government Shutdown Not the End of the World

In case you’ve been living under a rock the last two weeks, you’re well aware of the shutdown of the federal government in the U.S., which is currently in its 11th day.

Sorry, We're Closed

[image courtesy of FixTheDebt.org]

Not surprisingly, some people are in a panic about this. As one famous radio commentator explained,1

To a lot of people, this is their first government shutdown. 1995 was 17 years ago… So you realize this is a lot of people’s first government shutdown. You youths in the audience. And most people’s historical perspective begins with the day they were born. It’s just human nature. Most people believe that things happening when they were alive are worse than they’ve ever been. They can’t imagine it. And of course, that’s folly. But it’s still a part of human nature, that people think this. And every generation has its percentage of people that think this is it. This is it. Whatever you want to call it—last days, final days—it’s all going to end, or the government’s going to implode, or whatever. We just can’t keep going this way. It’s got to come to a head. I’ve often found that fascinating.

There has been a lot of fearmongering about this issue. (Fearmongering in politics being nothing new.) Part of the problem is that the term “government shutdown” is much more foreboding than what it actually describes, and is something of a misnomer. All the services considered “essential”—the military, air traffic controllers, the IRS, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Post Office—are still continuous throughout the shutdown period. In fact, 83% of the government expenditures continue uninterrupted, with spending only reduced by 17%.2

Republican Senator Ted Cruz has pointed out that the government shutdown is “not the end of the world”,3 and he’s right. The government has been shut down 17 times in the past, and each time it has managed to recover.4 But the damage is still very real—the last two shutdowns in 1995 and 1996 cost taxpayers a combined $1.4 billion, which—adjusted for inflation—is about $2 billion in today’s dollars.5

Too much focus has been on “who’s to blame” for the latest shutdown. (Hint: Democrats think it’s the Republicans, and Republicans think it’s the democrats.) But perhaps a more worthwhile endeavor would be to examine the root causes, and look at what, as opposed to who, led to the current predicament. When Congress is unable to pass a budget by the deadline, spending on the nonessential services must cease.6 With the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare, about to take full effect in January 2014, House Republicans see this moment as their final opportunity to make changes to the law. President Obama has already made several revisions to the law as it was originally signed, most notably exemptions for unions and some businesses for the first year. Recently, John Stewart of The Daily Show discussed the new health care law with Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, echoing the concerns of Republicans (whom he characterized as hailing from “Crazytown”), asking her why these same exemptions weren’t provided to individuals.7 So now we have a role reversal situation (at least of the stereotypes), where Democrats are giving special privileges to big business and Republicans are championing the rights of the little guy.

There’s still a lot of finger-pointing, and not a whole of negotiating at this point. And any talks between the parties—at least in the immediate future—are more likely to focus on the debt limit, rather than the shutdown itself.8 After all, the debt limit must be settled by October 17, less than a week away.

Neither problem is likely to be disastrous, as observed by CNN Reporter Erin Burnett:9

What about the shutdown? The media notices the Amber Alert website isn’t working, it goes back up. Ninety percent of the civilian Department of Defense employees are now back working. If the government was really shut down there wouldn’t be money to do all of this so it does sort of create this atmosphere of, “Maybe they oversold this.” This was supposed to be the end of the world, and it’s not, so then maybe the debt ceiling won’t be the end of the world.

While both parties may be at an impasse, this is but a temporary issue. Just like all the previous shutdowns, this one will be resolved—one way or another. The U.S. government is not going anywhere, and life goes on.


  1. Limbaugh, R. (2013, October 9). The Rush Limbaugh Show [Radio broadcast]. Palm Beach, FL: Excellence in Broadcasting.
  2. York, B. (2013, October 5). Where’s sense of crisis in a 17% government shutdown? Washington Examiner. Retrieved from http://washingtonexaminer.com/wheres-sense-of-crisis-in-a-17-percent-government-shutdown/article/2536862
  3. Bendery, J. (2013, September 19). Ted Cruz: Government shutdown not “the end of the world”. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/19/obamacare-government-shutdown_n_3956365.html
  4. Matthews, D. (2013, September 25). Here is every previous government shutdown, why they happened and how they ended. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/09/25/here-is-every-previous-government-shutdown-why-they-happened-and-how-they-ended/
  5. Dann, C. (2013, September 28). Why a government shutdown could be a pricey proposition. NBC. Retrieved from http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/09/28/20723289-why-a-government-shutdown-could-be-a-pricey-proposition?lite
  6. Nicks, D. (2013, October 9). The man who invented the government shutdown. TIME. Retrieved from http://swampland.time.com/2013/10/09/the-man-who-created-the-government-shutdown/
  7. Osterman, K. (2013, October 8). Jon Stewart grills HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius about lack of individual Obamacare delay. Red Alert Politics. Retrieved from http://redalertpolitics.com/2013/10/08/jon-stewart-grills-hhs-secretary-kathleen-sebelius-about-lack-of-individual-obamacare-delay/
  8. Condon, S. (2013, October 11). Government shutdown drags on as lawmakers talk about a debt limit deal. CBS. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57607110/government-shutdown-drags-on-as-lawmakers-talk-about-a-debt-limit-deal/
  9. Burnett, E. (2013, October 7). Erin Burnett OutFront [Television broadcast]. Atlanta, GA: CNN.

1 comment

  1. Elaine says:

    Interesting — I don’t understand how eliminating a percentage of government expenditures has resulted in additional expenses to taxpayers, unless you are referring to the government employees’ lost pay.

    In light of the fact that only a fraction of government services are shut down, it appears that media reports may be exaggerated. This reminds me of how annual predictions of a disastrous hurricane season caused many residents to ignore warnings and evacuation orders.

    It also appears from your report that higher courts are functioning are that lower courts are not — leading to a horrendous backlog — and a suggestion that the government shutdown may be unconstitutional. How can one branch shut down another when they’ve done nothing wrong?

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