Is Shutting Down the Federal Government Ever Justified?

August in Washington always reminds me of the proverbial calm before the storm. That is, the storm of political acrimony and legislative gridlock as the fiscal year draws to an end and appropriations bills pile up in Congress.

But this year the stakes are much higher as some members of Congress are actively threatening a federal gov-wide shutdown over funding of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare” — which is the law of the land and was even upheld in a Supreme Court case.

In fact, before fleeing the nation’s capital for an unearned and undeserved five week vacation, the House voted for the 40th time to annihilate all or part of Obamacare.

This is just the latest example of some in Congress casting meaningless votes fueled by extremist ideology and PR positioning for the 2014 and 2016 elections.

This raises the question of whether today’s political gridlock and persistent demonization of government/feds has gone too far? Moreover, when will it end?

Holding the Economy Hostage

As if threatening to shutter the government isn’t bad enough, some in Congress are also playing chicken with defaulting on the national debt — that is, if any FY 2014 agency appropriations contain money to implement Obamacare. Congress must soon vote to raise the debt ceiling which is fast approaching the current legal limit.

But consider the potential disastrous results of such actions on the tepid economy. The repercussions of a government shutdown and defaulting on the debt may include:

  • Another downgrading of America’s credit rating,
  • Disruptions in global markets, and
  • Causing the economy to slip back into recession.

For federal employees, a shutdown would mean another prolonged furlough (for all practical purposes). This is in addition to the ongoing sequester, lack of hiring and the three-year pay freeze faced by feds.

However, federal employment is already shrinking even while private sector employment is increasing. This is ironic because federal employment helped to stimulate the listless economy during the Great Recession when private sector unemployment skyrocketed.

Moreover, a government shutdown by Congress over Obamacare would be devastating for tens of millions of Americans who lack health insurance. These citizens are mostly the poor and middle class, including racial/ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

Political Gridlock Run Amok

In short, Congress should never attempt a government shutdown for purely partisan reasons (much less any impractical reason), especially at the expense of an already weak economic recovery that’s barely plodding along.

It’s simply irresponsible and immoral that some in Congress would put their own personal and partisan self-interests above the interests of the American people whom they purport to represent.

Is it any wonder then that public approval of Congress remains below 10% at historically low levels?

So what will happen when Congress soon returns to Washington in September? There will only be a few short weeks to pass a multitude of appropriations bills funding the government for FY 2014.

Unfortunately, the so-called “conventional wisdom” is that it doesn’t look good.

The prospects for bi-partisan compromise via a legislative “grand bargain” — perhaps in the form of a mega omnibus appropriations bill — don’t appear promising.

History Repeats Itself

Remember this infamous headline and others like it?

Let’s recall the consequences of the last government shutdown precipitated by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995. Will history repeat itself?

Following the 1995 government shutdown Gingrich ultimately lost the Speakership and President Clinton eventually won reelection.

Thus the party responsible for the shutdown paid a harsh price for its antics. That’s something today’s Congressional leaders should not forget.

Real Suffering by Poor & Middle Class

Nonetheless, the real suffering will be felt by the majority of the American people, save the 1% of the super rich.

Millions of federal civil servants and their families will feel the pain if the government shutters.

If the fragile U.S. economy were a hospital patient its condition would appear barely stable with a long-term prognosis for incremental improvement. So what’s the rationale for pulling the plug and placing the patient back in the ICU?

This is simply nonsensical.

In essence, it’s a crying shame that the American people — including millions of loyal, hardworking and dedicated federal civil servants — are the ones who always appear to take a major hit when it comes to Congressional brinkmanship over the budget.

Will this “do nothing” Congress finally wise up and do something for the good of the American people?

Based on Washington’s toxic political climate don’t bet on it.


Note: an op-ed on this topic first appeared on Politix.com

Also check out:

Why Congress Should Be Furloughed Too

3 Reasons to Cut Congressional Pay in Half

Sequestration Obscures Fiscal Reality

Federal Salary: It’s About Principles, Not Pay

* All views and opinions are those of the author only.

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Scott Kearby

If the leaders (politicians, appointees, & bureaucrats) never have to deal with the consequences of their inaction, procrastination, and avoidance of the issues then we will continue to have bad results. The debt ceiling is not a secret, the sequester “deal” was made a couple of years ago to force some action … and what do we get … lots of talk and efforts to avoid the consequences. Instead of facing the issues and having the moral courage to make hard & possibly unpopular decisions, the so-called leaders look to shift blame and responsibility. I realize that it is easier said than done, but those in charge need to buck up & do the right thing even if there are personal consequences.

David B. Grinberg

Very well put, Scott.

Thanks so much for being bold enough to share your insightful views, with which I agree 100%.

Still, unfortunately, don’t count on it happening any time soon — to the continued detriment of the American people, the political process and our democratic form of government.

Phuong Le Callaway, PhD

I agreed with your position, David, You wrote, “The repercussions of a government shutdown and defaulting on the debt may include:
Another downgrading of America’s credit rating,
Disruptions in global markets, and
Causing the economy to slip back into recession.

For federal employees, a shutdown would mean another prolonged furlough (for all practical purposes). This is in addition to the ongoing sequester, lack of hiring and the three-year pay freeze faced by feds. However, federal employment is already shrinking even while private sector employment is increasing. This is ironic because federal employment helped to stimulate the listless economy during the Great Recession when private sector unemployment skyrocketed.” I cannot agree more. Federal employees should not be held hostage over this Affordable Care Act. I am against furlough and Federal government shut-down. Federal employees have worked more and more for less and less. Shutting down the Federal government is against good public policy, damage employee morale and reduce productivity. Let’s keep the Federal government open to serve the citizens and keep the economy go strong.

Carol Kruse

David, you are SPOT ON! The further I read in your article the more excited I became, realizing you were verbalizing — so much more eloquently than I’ve been able to — thoughts and feelings I’ve had for a long time. I believe we’re seeing the effects of having people who hate government put in a position to manage that government…on top of the politicians already there who were polarized and playing games, to the point of absolute stultification, to avoid personal risk of re-election. They’re capitalizing on each other!

Uh, wait a minute…all those politicians and government-haters were put there by we voters, who have such an historically-low opinion of their performance. How does THAT happen!?!?!??

I have long advocated that our Senators and Representatives should have to telework from their homes in their respective districts. They can convene in DC in person only 5 days a year, for ceremonial purposes — but their daily work must be done from their homes, living every day amongst their constituents, shopping at the same stores we do, buying gasoline at the same stations we do, being admitted to the same hospitals by the same doctors we have. That should minimize development of the ‘Beltway Mentality,’ lobbying, hyperbole and grandstanding, and hopefully encourage modernization of antiquated protocols and procedures that provide easy excuses and/or tools for doing nothing with such pomp and grandiosity.

A friend of mine went even further…he suggests all bills be decided by popular vote. That’s right, every one of us of voting age would be able AND RESPONSIBLE to vote on every bill that’s submitted for vote. I’m sure something akin to politicians would crop up pretty quickly for the sake of convenience, but it’d be an interesting experiment! This whole conversation also puts me in mind of Craig Thomler’s thought-provoking musings on Australia’s political environment and future in an earlier Daily Awesome, Political participation in a crowded age. I suspect it applies well to the US, too.

I’m a grey-haired dinosaur nearing retirement. My jaded belief in this country’s capapcity for a diverse, fair, responsible, efficient, and responsive government has been greatly re-invigorated by the GovLoop community and conversations like this. Thank you, David, for saying what needs to be said (and saying it so well), for starting a conversation this country needs to have.

Oh, and “Just say NO” to closing down our government!!

David B. Grinberg

Carole: thanks so much for your kind words and thoughtful comments, which are very much appreciated.

Let me respond to a few of your points and questions:

  • I agree that Congress should leverage existing technology and transition to a digital/mobile remote workforce, only coming to DC perhaps 2-3 times per month. As you may know, there are actually a few pending bills in Congress on this issue with bi-partisan support. However, I doubt they will even make it out of committee for a floor vote. Did you read the discussion I posted about this a few weeks ago? If not, you can read it here.
  • On another point and question (“How does THAT happen!?”), survey research continues to show that while most Americans despise Congress as a whole, they still approve of their own congressmen. Thus, members of Congress continue to be reelected and further corrupt the system.
  • Regarding a national citizen referendum rather than voting by Congress, I think that’s a more pure form of democracy and direct citizen engagement. California holds referendums on controversial issues all the time, as do other states. Perhaps this might actually occur in the future, assuming we secure the web from hackers and guarantee online security.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your important views on this topic.

David B. Grinberg

FYI — National Journal reports via GovExec.com:

Push for a Government Shutdown Over Obamacare Falls on Hard Times


  • “The GOP drive to defund Obamacare is leaking oil. From the leaders of the GOP establishment to usual tea-party allies, a growing number of Republicans are splitting with movement conservatives who are pushing to shut down the federal government if funding is not cut off for President Obama’s health care law at the end of September.”
  • “The growing concern is that the tea-party activists and a handful of senators, led by the troika of Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are marching into battle without a plan for victory short of Obama reversing himself on his signature domestic achievement—an almost unimaginable outcome.”
  • “In the Senate, Lee, Cruz, and Rubio are trying to buttonhole colleagues to pledge to oppose keeping the government running past Sept. 30 unless funding for the health care law is cut off. But so far they have the signatures of only 13 senators. A total of 41 Republican senators would have to vow to block a government funding measure to guarantee success in the Senate.”

Scott Kearby

This was posted in early August … and the political folks still had plenty of time to deal with the issues … at least as they relate to a simple CR. An actual budget has not been passed for 3 or 4 years now contrary to the “law of the land” that requires the budget to be passed by 30 Sep each and every year.

As long as a shutdown does not personally impact the members and their direct staff … in the pocketbook or at the ballot box … then they will continue to avoid confronting and dealing with tough issues that take real work and real compromise.

David B. Grinberg

Thanks very much, Scott, for sharing your astute observations. Ditto to Joan.

As you noted, this entire fiscal fiasco should have been resolved many months ago. I totally agree with you it’s simply outrageous that our lawmakers, especially the in the House, caused this dire situation — which continues to unbelievably drag on (as of this writing).

As the President as already said, it’s completely unacceptable and embarrassing that one minority faction, of one political party, of one chamber of Congress can hold the federal government and the U.S. economy hostage — not to mention rattling global markets.

You hit the nail on the head about members of Congress needing to personally and politically feel the pain. It’s too bad the Congress can’t be dissolved with new elections held ASAP, similar to some other parliamentary democracies overseas.

What America really needs do to is throw the bums out, as they say. Hopefully, in 2014 voters will send the House an unequivocal message: goodbye and good riddance!