In a great opinion piece yesterday, journalist Nicholas Kristof observes that in the case of a U.S. Government shutdown tomorrow, where many thousands of federal workers will not get their paychecks, members of the U.S. Congress will continue getting paid as normal.
Kristof explains that the reason for this is twofold, but also reminds us that repeated attempts to remedy this situation have failed:
“That’s partly because Congressional pay is not subject to the regular appropriations process, and partly because of Constitutional concerns. The Senate passed a bill proposed by Barbara Boxer of California that would suspend Congressional paychecks in any government shutdown, but the Republican-controlled House has blocked it. House Republicans approved a similar pay suspension, but it was embedded in legislation that has zero chance of becoming law.”
It seems morally repugnant to think that federal workers that do work most people would agree is far more important than the work of a politician – such as managing public welfare programs or working in areas of wildlife and natural resource management – will lose income, while members of congress continue to receive a salary upwards of $174,000 annually.
The Tragedy of a Shutdown
The tragedy of this situation is that many of these federal workers are likely one or two paychecks away from bankruptcy or defaulting on their mortgages. Playing with the lives of these already-underpaid federal workers is a political pawn that Congress should be absolutely ashamed of using.
As Kristof points out, if the shutdown plays out, it will serve as fodder for foreign governments to use as an argument that the American system of government is flawed - what Kristof calls a "powerful argument for autocracy." Paying Congress during a desperate government shutdown caused by Congress not only sends a very bad message to the American people, but it sends an even worse message to the world about the leaders of the United States and the situation of the people they supposedly "serve."
Kristof writes, tongue-in-cheek:
"If a high school student council refused to approve a budget so that student activities had to be canceled — even as student leaders continued to pay themselves stipends — a school board would probably cancel the entire experiment in student democracy. But I can’t imagine high school students acting so immature."
Is the Problem Really All About Spending?
While it is a simple enough argument to say that to spark the recovery of the U.S. economy, then spending must be cut drastically across the board, economically that isn't always necessarily true.
Cutting funding leads to less income for even more U.S. citizens that work for the government, leading to less spending, additional debt defaults, and a continuation of the downward spiral.
However, as any real estate investor will tell you, people that are financially smart do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. In a poor economy, while people are selling things off cheaply, it's time to start spending more and buying more. In a wealthy economy, when money is rolling in hand-over-fist, it's time to spend less and start socking away the money.
Obviously the government failed to cut the budget when they should have, when times were good - but it would be doubly tragic at this point if Congress made huge spending slashes across the board.
As Kristof points out:
"But one of the most basic principles of economics is that when an economy is anemic, governments should use deficit spending as a fiscal stimulus, even though that means an increase in debt. If Senator Rubio believes that the response to a weak economy is to slash spending, he is embracing the approach that Herbert Hoover discredited 80 years ago."
He describes the appropriate solution as "short term stimulus combined with long-term trims."
Government Shutdown as a Catalyst for Crisis
A government shutdown negatively affects the very areas of the U.S. economy that continue to keep it afloat. People would miss their house payments, the IRS would struggle getting refund checks back into the hands of people who would spend that money, small businesses would lose government loan income - all for the purpose of a short term political stunt in order to win the battle over the budget.
My suggestion and warning to the general public is to keep a close eye on what Congress does over the next 24 hours.
If the United States is forced into a government shutdown by Congress on Friday, I propose that it will be the very beginning of a perfect storm - coming from the American people they claim to serve - the likes of which I doubt members of Congress will ever suspect is coming. But by then, it will be too late to do anything about it.