Government Shutdown: What It Really Meant

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Well, that was a mess.

Welcome to life in a post-shutdown world. The birds are still singing, the sun is shining and Toecutter's Gang controls only a few miles of highway outside of Detroit. To be fair, those folks probably owned that already.

We happily managed to avoid Armageddon. That doesn't mean the shutdown was a good idea though; just because we don't feel an agency's absence within 72 hours doesn't mean it's useless after all. Programs like the EPA or FDA might do their work in regulatory obscurity, but if every drug company started labeling its products "Buyer Beware," we'd certainly miss the agency.

During the shutdown we divided up the government into essential and non-essential services. Essential services stayed online while everyone else went home to watch reruns of Jeopardy. In the aftermath, it's worth looking at where those lines were drawn. What does the government consider essential? More importantly, with future shutdowns a virtual certainty, what does it say about our priorities going forward?

Here are a few services that went dark for 16 days, compared to some that got to stay open.

Closed: The Environmental Protection Agency
Open: FEMA

The EPA is a popular whipping boy of the Right, but here they're (sort of) right. The Environmental Protection Agency's mission is regulatory. Its job is to protect us from the long-term harm of chemicals in the air, water and everywhere else, and to monitor the producers.

Emergencies rarely require the EPA. More often services such as FEMA come online to handle short-term problems and hand of long-term solutions once the danger has passed. During the government shutdown that's exactly what happened, as furloughed FEMA employees came back to help prepare for Tropical Storm Karen.

The EPA's mission is critical to America's long term health and preservation, but little of what it manages changes in the course of a week. This decision made sense.

Closed: Health services
Open: Law enforcement

I can't argue with the value of law enforcement, but the logic is applied here too narrowly.

During a shutdown, the government needs to protect life and property. Unfortunately, it works from Michael Bay's playbook. Agencies that protect us from sudden disasters like storms, nuclear meltdowns and armed robberies stay in business, as of course they should. Places that protect us from quiet killers, though, generally get the ax.

This is the case with programs like NIH's clinical trials and the CDC's disease monitoring programs. While the National Institute of Health didn't kick out any current patients, new ones got turned away at the door.

We need to expand our view of essential government services, especially if shutdowns are to become part of our political landscape. Disease kills. It may not do so as spectacularly as a tidal wave but it kills just the same, and Americans should not lose access to vital care over a budgetary snafu.

And I mean that in the most original form of the term.

Complicated: U.S. AID

Not quite closed, the U.S. Agency for International Development is also not considered essential. During the shutdown, it operated off existing multi-year funds. Had it run out of that pool of money, U.S. AID would have had to close.

The United States Agency for International Development is one of the best contributions America has, full stop. U.S. AID provides health and humanitarian services around the world, and I personally have lived in places where people depend on its clinics for their children's lives.

I've seen its doctors work wonders on a handful of resources and had strangers extend me kindnesses just to find an American they could thank. Foreign aid is an area where government does some of the most good for every dollar spent. U.S. AID feeds the hungry, treats the sick and gives shelter to the homeless, and that need doesn't go away. This is something we should all support, whether the government is open or not.

Open: The FAA
Closed: The National Parks

Thanks to some spectacular bits of showmanship, America's national parks become the unexpected face of this government shutdown. Unfortunately, closing them during a shutdown makes sense, as without staff, the government can't fully maintain, protect or keep safe the grounds.

Closing the Lincoln Memorial may seem silly at first, but it would get a lot less funny if understaffed security led to someone spray painting the Great Emancipator.

Parks are the very picture of a valuable but non-essential government service, and there's a good argument that the FAA is too. Don't get me wrong, the cost and inconvenience of shutting down America's air network would be staggering, but no one would physically suffer or die. If the standard is "protect life and property," putting planes in the air meets neither of those prongs, medical emergencies and the military excluded.

Keeping the FAA open lets a government shutdown happen more quietly in the background. While I'm generally all for normalizing this process a little bit more, we need to feel it too. People shouldn't suffer (and I'll not even address changing travel plans compared to denying medical care), but maybe losing the FAA would be a good way to make sure this remains an extraordinary event instead of a relatively painless political temper tantrum.

Closed: The House Staff Gym
Open: The House Members Gym

I actually have no objection to the fact that the House gym stayed open. The Capitol remains open during a shutdown, and I could easily understand that Congress does not want to sort through its building room by room deciding who really needs to stay.

Administratively, it's probably much easier to just keep the whole place up and running than assign the shutdown equivalent of hall monitors.

However, keeping the gym for Congressmen open while specifically closing the gym for their staff just seems mean.

Closed: WIC
Complicated: SNAP

Thankfully, the shutdown ended when it did. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, generally known as food stamps, had enough money to get through the month of October. After that, the program had no money to carry it forward. WIC, a nutrition program for Women Infants and Children, lost funding altogether and had to mostly close during the shutdown.

Like I mentioned above, we need to re-evaluate just what the government considers an essential service based on a less disaster-driven script. Hunger is neither an inconvenience nor a choice. If we can find the money to get business travelers from L.A. to Atlanta, we can spend some on keeping our people fed.

We should probably be more nuanced in our thinking about how essential someone is. Just because you're not stopping bad guys, doesn't mean people don't depend on you. While the country can get by for a week or two without the EPA, people who depend on the WIC feel it quickly.

Of course, the easiest answer is to just stop shutting the government down, but that's probably not going to happen.

--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.

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