How Painful Should The Shutdown Be?

A reader writes:

I saw some faux rage on HuffPo about the fact that Fox News call the shutdown a slimdown. Now, while the motives of Fox News are known, they are not incorrect. Yes, 800,000 people have been sent home. But 1.3 million are still at work. And on top of that, the count of active military is about 1.5 million. So, only about a fifth of all government employees have been sent home. That is not a shutdown, even if the effects will be very annoying, especially over time.

The problem is that, once again, the government has exempted itself largely from feeling the effects from shutting down.

Congress gets paid. The judiciary power, including the Supreme Court, is largely open. I understand we can’t close down national defense, but why do we need 1.3 million people on active duty? Congress did pass a quick law to keep them paid. With the government down, can’t that shrink down to much, much less – basically only base protection?

And then the government has made weird choices on what is “essential'” Apparently, the FAA and TSA are essential. But curing cancer patients is not. So, members of Congress can fly home, while they do not have to turn patients away from the NIH. All national parks are closed, they say. But not the “highway” parks in DC such as the BW Parkway and the GW Parkway, even though the park parts of those parks are closed. Nor is the White House, which is technically a National Park, closed. DC gets to declare itself essential. You can even wonder why combat troops are essential. In the old days, wars were lost because there was no pay.

Now, it is understandable that honorable civil servants want to minimize the damage by the shutdown. But on the other hand, isn’t it the point of a shutdown to cause hurt? And isn’t the damage supposed to put pressure on Congress to get its act together? So shouldn’t the pain be pointed at Congress the most?

But “essential” employees, even though they must go to work, aren’t paid until the shutdown ends. Yglesias points out that this can’t last forever:

Walking around today you might notice that despite the shutdown hype, life is basically going on as normal. That’s because all those essential workers are still on the job. But they’re not getting paid. If you’re not essential, you aren’t allowed to work even if you’re willing to work without pay. If you are essential, you have to work even though you won’t be paid.

… These are patriotic people who will keep doing their jobs, but they obviously can’t work for free forever. Realistically, as a shutdown drags on there will be political pressure to appropriate funds to pay certain people. The president already signed an ad hoc bill that assures soldiers will get paid. Given a long enough shutdown, FBI agents and the people feeding the animals at the National Zoo might also get special bills for them. In practice, though, a fall 2013 government shutdown has a rather short potential lifespan. That’s because even with the government shut down we’re still going to breach the statutory debt ceiling around Oct. 17-20 at which point the lack of discretionary appropriations will be subsumed by a larger and more cataclysmic issue.