America offline: Congress bluescreens entire gov't

America offline: Congress bluescreens entire gov't

Summary: A government shutdown doesn't mean just that our completely useless politicians go home and stop breaking things. Oh, no. That, at least, would have an upside.

(Image: CNET)

I never thought it would go this far. I don't have a whole lot of respect for our politicians in Congress, but I've always counted on their enlightened self-interest to keep things from going completely off the rails.

Not so much.

As of midnight last night, most of the operations funded by federal dollars have been shutdown.

Let me be clear. A government shutdown doesn't mean just that our completely useless politicians go home and stop breaking things. Oh, no. That, at least, would have an upside.

No, a government shutdown means that almost everything the government pays for no longer gets money, and therefore ceases operations.

The Washington Post estimates that 800,000 federal workers will be furloughed. Let's just look at that number for a moment.

A back of the napkin (okay, a Wolfram Alpha calculation) shows that those workers (in total) get almost three quarters of a billion dollars each week.

Let's ignore the fact that nearly a million workers -- not politicians, but the underpaid, overworked rank-and-file government workers -- won't get paid while Congress takes a hiatus from sanity. Instead, just think about the impact that removing a 750 million dollars a week from the economy will have overall on our sagging economy.

Now, before all you NSA-bashers break out your champagne and start celebrating, the NSA along with most of America's national security apparatus will continue to function as usual. Elements considered essential to national security are immune from this sort of overall government budget squabble.

So who is at fault here? Do we blame President Obama because nobody wants the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare)? Well, as we've proven in column after column, the Obama variant of Godwin's Law is always active, which means some of you are naturally going to blame the President.

But let's be clear here. Mr. Obama ran on his record, which included as one of his signature accomplishments, Obamacare. As we all know, less than a year ago, he was reelected, based in a large part on that program. After all, we also know that Mitt Romney ran against Obamacare (and, weirdly enough, against Romneycare), and Mr. Romney lost the election.

The American people voted and a majority chose Mr. Obama, knowing full well that Obamacare came along with the package.

Let's recast this for a moment as if we're talking about a startup company and venture capital. Think of the White House as the management team for the company and think of Congress as the investors or venture capitalists. The White House has a business (a country) to run. The VCs (Congress) just cut off the funds to do that.

That's pretty much what happened last night. Congress refused to approve a new budget (technically, a "continuing resolution") and continued to refuse until the last possible moment, at which time the money stopped flowing to all those programs essential to government operations.

By the way, don't think that if the government stops operating, you won't have to pay taxes, or you'll have to pay less taxes. These things don't work that way. A government shutdown doesn't have positive benefits. You'll still have to pay taxes, and you'll probably have to pay more, because it's going to cost a lot to start everything back up that got shut down.

There's another looming money problem that shows up in mid-October for Congress and the President: the debt ceiling. Every year or so, our political leaders go into spasms of idiocy over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling.

Let me be clear: raising the debt ceiling isn't about allowing the President or the agencies to spend more money. Raising the debt ceiling is about making sure America can pay its bills for debts already incurred. If we don't raise our debt ceiling, we basically stiff the folks (i.e., countries and banks) we borrowed money from.

None of us like the idea of giving more money to banks, even if we owe it to them. But here's the nasty side effect: if we delay payments to our lenders, it will damage our credit rating. What that means is the cost of money from the very same lenders will go up. In other words, not paying our bills doesn't save us money, it actually costs us more in the long run.

So while Congress is busy arguing about raising the debt ceiling (something that Congress has done historically, as a matter of reasonable course for decades), the fact is the entire argument is whether we pay our bills now like a responsible nation, or Congress forces us to pay our bills later, and at a higher price.

That brings us back to the shutdown itself and how this could possibly happen. After all, this is the first shutdown of this magnitude we've seen in 17 years.

Sadly, the answer is that democracy is messy. We have a representational government and for governance to happen, a majority of those representatives have to agree. When those representatives don't agree, things come to a screeching halt.

The founding fathers knew this sort of thing might happen. Although some of them eventually became avowed federalists, initially most of them were ardent supporters of states' rights (hence: United States) and figured that if all the very opinionated federal representatives could come to an agreement, it had to be an issue important enough to warrant that agreement.

Of course, our founding fathers generally thought we'd elect sane representatives. What we have now is a faction of our elected representation representing their electorate (or, more precisely, powerful influence groups within that core electorate), at the expense of the greater whole.

Rather than accept that issues like Obamacare have already made it through the crucible of both elections and Supreme Court rulings, they're trying a different approach: hold America's operations hostage until they get their way.

Our system of government allows this. It's very foolish and exceedingly short-sighted, but it is democracy in action. We not only elected a President, we elected our Congress.

Assuming the government decides to reboot sometime between now and the mid-term elections in just about 13 months, we can boot the bums out then.

In the meantime, we're setting a great example (he says ironically) for newly minted democracies the world over. Sigh.

Oh, and for the record, ZDNet Government will keep running. Now, if only they'd let me run America, I could fix us some things...

Topics: Government US, Government


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Vote 'em out

    It appears that the vast majority of members of Congress (both parties) put party loyalty ahead of the public interest and thereby demonstrated that they are unfit to hold public office. Voters should therefore reject every incumbent from senior party leaders to freshmen who consistently voted with his party on budget issues during the course of this Congress. Yes, it would mean a lot of voting across party lines if overly loyal incumbents are renominated, but I see no alternative. Trying to determine which party is least at fault is an exercise in futility; both are majorly at fault.

    And President Obama deserves a large share of the blame in that his own hard lines contributed greatly to both sequestration and the current shutdown.
    John L. Ries
    • Vote Republicans out

      So, we are supposed to "negotiate" with a splinter group of the Republican party who chooses to hold the government hostage on a bill that was passed by Congress, signed by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court? Doing so only increases the possibility that the same type of blackmail will be used on the debt ceiling bill. I am not voting out incumbents, I am not voting Republican.
      • Here's the thing

        1) Because of congressional gerrymandering, a minority of American voters picked the party that controls congress (Republicans Congressmen in total got 1.5 million votes less than Democrats)

        2) Because of closed primary rules and primary challenges from well funded right-wing backers, most Republican congressmen are doing the bidding of a very small group of ideological Tea Party radicals within their own party.

        3) Because of loose campaign contribution laws at the state level, most of these Tea Party groups are basically front groups for a tiny group of Conservative billionaires.

        So in the end, the country is being jerked around by a handful of ideologically extreme billionaires.

        Welcome to your new Plutocracy folks.
        • We can still vote

          And if even if you live in a safe district for one party or the other, you can still vote against the dominant party's candidate (even if you're affiliated with the dominant party). Politicians do pay attention to their margin of victory (or defeat).
          John L. Ries
          • re: We can still vote

            > Politicians do pay attention to their margin of victory (or defeat).

            What was the margin of defeat for the anti-Obamacare ("Job One: Repeal Obamacare") Mitt Romney?

            It was stated correctly earlier in this thread: the districts are so gerrymandered that Republicans these days are elected to go to DC not to clean it up but to burn it down.

            And for how long can we still vote? Look at all the voter suppression measures popping up in Republican-controlled states. Also, after Obama's reelection state legislators talked about leveraging the gerrymandered districts and apportioning electoral college delegates according to the number of districts they won so that losing vote-getter still wins most of the state's delegates.

            It might be politically correct to say a pox on both their houses and blame the parties equally but there is no comparison. The Republicans want power any way they can get it in order to pass legislation that favor a handful of people at the expense of the rest of us. You included. Their behavior in this current fight is beyond reprehensible. Just wait for the big one on the 17th when the Republicans are poised to drive the country over the cliff.
            none none
          • Interestingly enough...

            ...I'm a registered Democrat residing in southern Utah and am pleased to report that I am actually allowed to vote. Yes the Congressional districts are gerrymandered (though I really don't understand why the Legislature bothers), but determined voters and good candidates can foil even the most determined gerrymander. The big problem is that the parties concede seats way too easily, and many activists would rather give up a seat to the opposition than have it held by a ideologically incorrect member of their own party (conservative Democrat or liberal Republican). But it doesn't have to be that way and didn't used to be that way.
            John L. Ries
          • I'm glad you can still vote.

            Utah doesn't need to pass the new restrictive voting laws that some "purple" states (with gerrymandered R legislatures and House districts, but came close to, or actually were, carried by Obama last time) have, so your vote is safe for now, especially if you are white and not YET impoverished by the plutocratic economy. But it's not YOU they are campaigning to, it is the ideologically programmed conservative voters, who vote for ANY R candidate, even if they do feel that candidate is too crazy, because ANY D is unacceptable, assuming one is even running.

            The best each one of us can do is try to show our CONSERVATIVE friends that (1) "liberal" is not the dirty word their conservative propaganda machine has been telling them, (2) "conservative" is not actually the flag, Mom and apple pie, rather in today's world it borders on the "F word." Not that one; their aims are WORSE than Fascism, more like Feudalism. And (3) they should vote straight D for the next few elections until the extremists are gone, THEN go back to voting for reasonable Republicans, or "vote the person, not the party." But right NOW, anyone running as an R is too beholden to the special interests to vote his or her character once elected. You may get a better looking or more churchgoing official by voting for the R, but you will ALSO get the plutocratic and religiously dogmatic POLICIES that threaten to harm the majority of Americans.
          • Always better to vote for people instead of parties

            Certainly there are a lot of people around here who see the world as you describe it, but voting straight ticket anything won't help the situation (what you're saying when you do is that a hack or a rent-a-pol is just as good as a truly conscientious public servant as long as he has the right party label).

            Much better to focus on candidates and issues and ignore the partisan stupidity (and insist on voting, even when the dominant party's hacks try to make it difficult), and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same.
            John L. Ries
        • ... ad the OTHER thing.

          A) When Democrats are in power, they too use gerrymanding to their own advantage. It is a dishonest practice that both sides cling to.

          B) Again, primary rules are set by State political parties. They COULD change their own rules.

          C) In 1906, the Supreme Court granted the corporations the same rights as individuals to peaceably assemble. In the 1970's, the Supreme Court equated political contributions with Free Speech.

          D) The electorate chooses who they want to lead them. Like it or not, the people get exactly what they deserve. Frankly, I am tired of choosing between the lesser of two evils.
          M Wagner
          • Agreed

            The whole business of corporate privilege got way out of hand a long time ago (I figure it's only a matter of time before Heinlein's prediction of corporate states in addition to territorial ones comes to pass) and should always vote for the best candidate regardless of party, even if you don't think he can win.

            And I make it a habit to vote against any politician who supports a gerrymander, regardless of what else he did during his term (did it in California too).
            John L. Ries
      • I seem to recall

        That during the various tax and budget controversies over the last year, that President Obama has consistently taken a hard line himself (remember "no budget cuts without new revenue"?). There is lots of blame to go around for the current situation and it's clear that both parties are more interested in appeasing their own extremists than they are in solving anything (apparently, solved problems result in fewer contributions). Voters should therefore reject incumbents of both parties, unless they have a consistent record of putting the public interest ahead of both party loyalty and campaign contributors.
        John L. Ries
        • Unfortunately

          Unfortunately President Obama has bent over backwards to the Republicans. It's one of the reasons that we have the health care plan that we do. One based on insurance companies and capitalism instead of a single payer. He has gone so far to the right that many Democrats aren't happy and that's one of the reasons his poll numbers are down. So hard line? Hardly.
          • BS

            The president refuses to come to the table. The reason the system is configured the way it is today is because the Democrats acted he way you are describing. If you are still living user the delusional idea that Republicans are in with big business and Democrats aren't then you have not paid attention to politics in quite sometime.
          • Joke

            LOL, that's a Joke. The GOP has had one overriding goal since the beginning: to undermine the U.S. economic recovery, thus creating unhappiness in voters who will then blame the President and put the GOP back in power. That's it. It's a completely cynical, if not blatantly treasonous strategy.
          • You Have been Deceived!

            @dsf3g: I generally avoid politically driven debates in forums, but I can't hold back after reading what you posted. You are making an assumption (and passing it along as fact) based on no actual facts that the GOP has an agenda to undermine economic recovery. Do your personal finances recover by spending your way out of it? No. It works the same way with our government. They have you and many other believing that the government must spend money on programs that create jobs in order to help our economy. However they never seem to really think it through. It never works. It has never worked in the past.

            In addition, we now have Obamacare. One of the most expensive programs to date. Obamacare won't make any money for our country. It won't help kisckstart the economy either. In fact, it is already doing the opposite. Workers all over the country are being told that they must switch to part time work. This is because companies can't afford to provide benefits they previously didn't or couldn't provide. You can't force businesses to do things that cost a lot of money, and then expect the economy to get better. It just doesn't work!
          • @ctleng76

            Household incomes are not the same as the government. They don't work the same. It's not spending our way out of it, it's supporting the economy until business can get it's feet under itself again. And it worked this time. And BTW most of the TRAP funds have been re-payed with interest.

            Obamacare is not supposed to be a money making project Obamacare is not a government based program, all the care has been farmed out to insurance companies. And since when did the purpose for healthcare become to make money. Healthcare should be about health!
          • re: You Have been Deceived!

            > This is because companies can't afford to provide
            > benefits they previously didn't or couldn't provide.
            > You can't force businesses to do things that cost a
            > lot of money, and then expect the economy to get better.

            I have never heard a persuasive argument for tying health insurance to employment. A) unemployed people get sick, too, and B) why should my employer pay for my health care?

            I'm sure it's an expense that they would much rather reinvest or transfer to the owners.

            So, yeah, workers all across the country are being switched to part-time work but I believe it's because it's more advantageous to the employers, Obamacare or no Obamacare.
            none none
          • It's an accident of history.

            Before the big war, medical care was not always effective, but it could be paid for out of pocket. Since they couldn't do as many things to make you well, most people either RECOVERED cheaply and quickly, or DIED cheaply and quickly. The first health care insurance was to pay for the RARE super-expensive treatment, and because the risks were rare for everyone, it could be paid for by individuals.

            Medicine advanced during the war, and military personnel (and their families) got care without paying. The war created demand for more labor, and the war factories were not allowed to (and did not want to) pay higher wages, so they added "free health insurance" as recruiting tools. After the war, the booming economy made jobs for returning veterans and still needed more workers, so the practice continued.

            In the other industrialized (and, because of the war, DE-industrialized) nations involved in the war, because so many of the war casualties were civilians at home (the kind of casualty we were almost totally spared), there was no booming economy, but lots of demand for health care, so those nations chose to set up national health services, either government-operated like our VA, or single-payer with private doctors like the Medicare we got (for seniors only) eventually. Lobby groups such as the AMA, and later the insurers who were making money off of HMO's, and making MORE money when they had an excuse to DENY care, prevented our government from getting anything close to universal until 2010 (but not totally in effect until 2014).

            Yes, workers are being switched to part time (or even to "contractor" status, pretending you are a small business of one person, "selling" services to a larger business), and it was happening before Obamacare. Now, for a while at least, they have a plausible sounding excuse.

            Obamacare should be the first step toward single payer, which is what we seniors have had since 1965. The only financial problem with Medicare is fraud, which we punish by electing the cheating CEO's to the Governor's Mansion.
          • Democrats are in with business

            But only occasionally and incidentally. TODAY'S Republicans, meaning most of them since Reagan, have dedicated their political LIVES to the worst kinds of big business. The President has come to the table so many times in the past, and the "compromise" turned out to be EVERYTHING they wanted, that harmed the working people of America, that he HAS TO stand fast THIS time, in order to put a stop to their EXTORTION of the American people.
          • What Koolaid Are You Drinking?

            Obama negotiates NOTHING with the other party. It's always his way or the highway. Well, looks like the highway now don't it?

            Obama brought this on himself. He's negotiating with Iran's new leader (and Iran's on the list of terrorist enabling countries!) but he won't bother to negotiate for even a second with the opposition party in Congress?

            My two year old has more sense than Obama. Shame on those of you who voted for him. He's the biggest narcissist to ever sit in the White House. Can't wait for him to be gone.