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In Defense of Government Shutdowns

The last government shutdown, which had the distinction of being the lengthiest in American history, and the growing likelihood of yet another one later this month, have precipitated a flurry of articles decrying [1] the fact that shutdowns happen at all. This is foolish. Despite their costs, shutdowns have a vital function.

Interestingly, shutdowns began only in 1980, and for a whole decade, they never lasted more than a day. However, under Bill Clinton, what’s now called “shutdown politics” made its debut. The first shutdown of the Clinton administration lasted a record five days. That one was swiftly eclipsed by a second that ground on for a whopping 21 days—longer than all previous shutdowns combined. All the repertory characters that would come to typify the shutdown were there: an ideological president and House speaker (Newt Gingrich) and a bipartisan cast of legislators prattling on about their commitments to their ideals or to compromise.

Surprisingly, the shutdown’s abrupt debut wasn’t due to record levels of partisanship or incompetence, but fiscal reform. For most of our country’s history, if Congress failed to pass a budget promptly, or a federal department spent more money than had been allotted, Congress would reliably cover all the debts that had been incurred. This meant that various officials and even the president himself could force [2] Congress to allot them funds whenever they thought it necessary, and predictably, they did so often. Expressing his disapproval, Congressman John Randolph of Virginia said in 1806, “Those who disburse the money are like a saucy boy who knows his grandfather will gratify him, and overturns the sum allowed him at pleasure.” Such saucy boys romped freely about Capitol Hill until 1980 when President Jimmy Carter had the good sense to ask his attorney general, Benjamin Civiletti, to review the legality of the practice with regard to a relatively unnoted piece of legislation passed in 1884 called the Antideficiency Act [3].

Following a brief yet eventful review, Civiletti found [4] that the practice was not only illegal, but that future violations could be criminally prosecuted—though he noted that there was a statutory exception for services necessary to protect human safety or property. Later in 1995, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, opined [5] further that “essential employees” could continue to work during a funding lapse based on that same statutory exception. Together, these interpretations of a relatively dusty piece of legislation curbed centuries of fiscal abuse and created the perfect conditions for the shutdown to take root.

One of the benefits of shutdowns is that they give voters rare opportunities to gauge the worth of a variety of “inessential” government services. Another is that shutdowns tend to foster fruitful public debates on issues of national importance like health care and border security. Far better than either of those things, however, shutdowns demonstrate that the government itself is not a sovereign entity with its own coherent interests. Rather, in the words [6] of Supreme Court Justice Thomas Stanley Matthews in his opinion in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, “while sovereign powers are delegated to the agencies of government, sovereignty itself remains with the people, by whom and for whom all government exists and acts.” To wit, the people are in charge, and though, as Matthews notes, “there must always be lodged somewhere, and in some person or body, the authority of final decision,” these entities are fundamentally accountable to “the ultimate tribunal of the public judgment, exercised either in the pressure of opinion or by means of the suffrage.”

Naturally, the convoluted and manifestly inefficient process by which the people simultaneously delegate and maintain their sovereignty is often cause for criticism—especially during shutdowns. For instance, during the shutdown in 2013, Princeton’s infamously utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer scorned [7] the division of powers as the “Constitution’s fundamental flaw.” Similarly, President Woodrow Wilson, who in his early days as a heady academic wanted to combine the legislative and executive branches into a parliament, once quipped [8], “How is the schoolmaster, the nation, to know which boy needs the whipping?” Such criticisms contrast with the principal concern of the Founding Fathers: popular sovereignty.

In Federalist 51, James Madison wrote [9], “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Though the Founders neither designed nor foresaw shutdowns, as a political mechanism, they’re precisely in the spirit of popular sovereignty that the Founders treasured. No other political phenomena so forcefully and dramatically obliges the whole people to recognize that their ideological divisions have become so great that the exercise of their sovereignty has become virtually impossible.

In precisely that vein, the political theorist Ernest Renan wrote [10] in his most influential essay “What is a Nation?” that a nation consists of two intimately united factors: “One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.” During a shutdown, the government, which is bound by elaborate mechanisms to the national will, becomes confused. For a moment, it seems as if the march of American history is at a standstill. There are only two means of moving forward: either government officials follow the will of something other than the nation or the nation engages in a momentous reconciliation of its will.

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The achievement of this reconciliation is never painless. Shutdowns throw the nation into a frenzy until elected leaders, acting under the strain of public opinion and the likely effects that their actions will have on their reelection—which Matthews notes are the two means by which the people control their public servants—reopen the government. Effectively, shutdowns force the body politic to recognize the vast costs of an inharmonious national will and oblige it, even at the price of extreme disappointment, to persist.

In a nation with a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” shutdowns should be expected and cherished. They are the sporadic rallying cries of liberty keeping the choir of our democracy from descending into bedlam.          

Michael Shindler is a research fellow at the Consumer Choice Center and writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in outlets including The American Conservative, National Review Online, the American Spectator, and the Washington, Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelShindler [11].

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "In Defense of Government Shutdowns"

#1 Comment By Taras 77 On February 10, 2019 @ 10:06 pm

Shut downs “might” be a decent idea to get rid of the chaff and bloated staff.

However, to not allow paychecks to struggling families is unconscionable. I have it on a relatives direct information that the Coast guard, in Alaska, for example, are large percentages of the population in small towns on the coast Some of these smll towns are almost entirely coast guard and are struggling for survival when no paychecks arrive.

#2 Comment By MrsDK On February 11, 2019 @ 7:53 am

If shutdowns affected the wealthy — let’s say, Congress and the President — then they would NEVER happen. But because they affect ordinary Americans, some doing crappy and dangerous jobs that nevertheless need be done — THEN they should be “expected” and “cherished”. What I would “cherish” is our elected officials actually doing their jobs!

#3 Comment By S On February 11, 2019 @ 8:09 am

Surprisingly, the rest of world manages to have democracy and accountability to the populace without such a weird practice. As for gauging the worth of ‘inessential’ services, this is a very stupid way to do so. It takes years for the downstream impact of some services to be felt. Even a 2 month shutdown is not going to give any meaningful data in such cases.

#4 Comment By Prodigalson On February 11, 2019 @ 8:53 am

Is there some kind of quota at TAC for libertarian gibberish per week? Does Grover Norquist mail a fresh 20 dollar bill to mgmt every time the horrors of gvt are exposed?

I vote the “consumer choice center” be shipped to Somalia, never to fear from the unjust burden of govt regulation again…

#5 Comment By Slugger On February 11, 2019 @ 10:49 am

Was the most recent shutdown, or any of the other shutdowns, the result of the will of the people? The power of the President has increased greatly and certainly exceeds anything envisioned in our Constitution; our military has engaged in a hundred theaters of conflict without a declaration of war in the last 75 years as often reported in these pages. Now, we have a shutdown without enactment of laws or policies. We are threatened by a seizure of power under “emergency” laws as though we were a banana republic.
We have a way to express the will of the people. It’s the Constitution not some Presidential decision.

#6 Comment By Fred Bowman On February 11, 2019 @ 11:49 am

Well if there is be a “government shutdown” let the White House and their staff, and Congress and their staff be the ones required to work without pay.

#7 Comment By furbo On February 11, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

Balderdash. Government shutdowns have precious little to do with popular expression and much to do with political theater. They’ve become common for a variety of reasons: perhaps too much transparency, parties losing control of candidate selection, etc, but they’re tolerated because….nothing of immediate importance really shuts down! The Military & Congress are paid regardless. If you’re a gov type in security or safety/welfare you work for free. The only folks really hurt by a shutdown are lower level clerical and blue collar/law enforcement employees with mortgages and kids in school. Whadda country!! I say if we’re going to do this kabuki dance, go all the way and SHUT IT DOWN – ALL OF IT. NO Gov’t employees get paid, no military, no post office, no SS Centers, no Airport security or ATC’s, no border patrol, etc. I give it ten minutes and Congress will work a compromise…

#8 Comment By Ksw On February 11, 2019 @ 2:52 pm

There is nothing conservative about applauding an incompetent congress and a bullying president. Nothing!

#9 Comment By sglover On February 11, 2019 @ 3:18 pm

Michael Shindler is a research fellow at the Consumer Choice Center and writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in outlets including The American Conservative, National Review Online, the American Spectator, and the Washington, Examiner.

So…. Yet another TAC “talent” living off the right-wing welfare trough. From that, everything else in this idiotic article follows. Still, even by the declining standards of The American Con, this gibberish is, um, impressive in its own special way:

During a shutdown, the government, which is bound by elaborate mechanisms to the national will, becomes confused. For a moment, it seems as if the march of American history is at a standstill. There are only two means of moving forward: either government officials follow the will of something other than the nation or the nation engages in a momentous reconciliation of its will.

It’s like Shindler believes that if he sprinkles some sophomore-level Hegel, it’ll somehow cover up that all he’s really trying for is a post hoc rationalization for one of the more recent idiotic Trump stunts.

Just another day at The American Con.

#10 Comment By Phil M On February 11, 2019 @ 3:27 pm

Ridiculous and nonsensical….

#11 Comment By What’s with TaC? On February 11, 2019 @ 3:46 pm

Another lousy TAC/Libertarian piece. If it were not for the foreign policy articles I would skip the new TAC entirely.

#12 Comment By One Guy On February 11, 2019 @ 4:44 pm

The most recent shutdown certainly did have a positive result, in that it made some people realize that POTUS doesn’t know what he’s doing, or care about the average American. It’s just too bad that so many had to suffer for that.

#13 Comment By Barnabas Shetler On February 11, 2019 @ 5:27 pm

Make the author of this article work a job without pay for two months and let’s see if he changes his mind afterward.

Plus, if government shutdowns are good? Then why don’t other countries do it? Maybe it’s because we’re super exceptional?

#14 Comment By Uncle Billy On February 11, 2019 @ 8:30 pm

If the government is shut down, stop paying Congress and their staffers. Ditto the White House.

Other countries do not have this foolishness. Why us?

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 12, 2019 @ 6:05 am

“Now, we have a shutdown without enactment of laws or policies. We are threatened by a seizure of power under “emergency” laws as though we were a banana republic.
We have a way to express the will of the people. It’s the Constitution not some Presidential decision.”

The “will of the people” another over used, over hyped” mantra. But let’s take it at face value. The will of the people was expressed in the last two elections. And various polling data.

1. they would prefer the US get out of unneccessary conflicts and avoid starting more.

2. they are keen on border security, including reinforcing our current wall, which in effect would be to build another, and actual wall might be nice.

3. they clearly are not in favor of easing immigration, though are as adamant as I am about a moratorium until we overhaul our policy and practice.

4. despite the wall street numbers, they are not as settled about the economy as the political class, as there are still concerns about healthcare, which seems out of reach and government has made that worse.

But both sides of the aisle, continue to support needless interventions. They don’t have a clue what to do about the economy, as long as it reads green in NY they will pretend all is well and dandy. Those exports numbers are not concerns for them, anymore than stifled actual growth.

The dependence of cities on the federal spending will continue. The deficit will continue to increase. The facade of change will remain the face of reality — for the time being. This president remains hampered by a weird unsupported assail about Russian interference and collusion, that has not an ounce of evidence. But as usual the democrats and the presidents opponents have created a cloud of smoke making it easy for this executive swim afoul of the reason he was elected.

There’s a policy intended to stifle criticism of Israel. And the backers of that proposal will do whatever it takes malign anyone, to get it passed. Now I certainly support Israel’s right to exist, but any politician in the US or any citizen who wants to stifle the right of citizens to critique foreign states is just bizarre, even if that criticism is a boycott. Isreal, gets plenty of US support, they sure as heck are entitled to criticism. We have people of influence who actually think and believe that what they need to do is replace an entire population with immigrants. I thought the export of blacks from Louisiana after Katrina actually positive, until it became clear that the last admin along with the Louisiana legislators used it to import illegal immigrants. It’s a strange world when the elected officials in the US sign on to a policy to undermine the US citizen by agreeing with Mexico to support illegal immigration onto the country on the sly.

Will of the people . . . I am not a fan of the will of the people and the “common good” advance, both are deeply misused concepts. But blaming the president for not adhering to the will of the people because he supports border security — an expressed will of the people repeatedly and consistently expressed is pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

The country did not collapse after the last shut down, I doubt it will if the president actually has the courage to advance the “will of the people” by building a wall, again.

#16 Comment By A DC Wonk On February 12, 2019 @ 8:04 am

Let’s also not forget the contractors, who really get royally scr#wed. And I’m not talking about so-called Beltway bandits. I’m talking about (I used to be a govt. employee), for example, the janitors and the guards at the front desk of government buildings who probably make not a whole lot more than minimum wage.

In the meantime, important rich people keep telling us it’s no big deal. Britt Hume had the audacity (and stupidity) to note that Trump himself works for no pay-check. Hello? Reality check? Just exactly how tone-deaf are these people?

But, hey, let’s do sacrifice the “little people” in the defense of, of, of what exactly?

(In other news, the IRS reports that the average tax refund is down 8% thus far. Once again, the rich guys thank the little people for their support of, of, of what exactly?)

#17 Comment By Donald On February 12, 2019 @ 12:43 pm

Prodigalson has it right. There has to be some sort of quota system at work here for silly front page posts.

Shutdowns are stupid and hurt people so that politicians can grandstand. That is their only function.