America offline: Congress bluescreens entire gov't

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.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
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...

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