Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Washington Monument Syndrome (or, 10 Things the Shutdown Spared)

It's official: The federal government of the United States has shut down. Well, sort of. 

You see, despite the media outcry, the partisan banter - and, yes, the 800,000 federal workers who were furloughed today - the federal government largely goes marching forward without a hitch from the perspective of the vast majority of Americans. While the tactics of either political party are debatable, and a less myopic solution is preferable no matter your political persuasion, it's quite clear that the things that are cut when the government shuts down are fewer than one would expect, not to mention rather arbitrary.

Or perhaps, these things are not arbitrary. "Washington Monument Syndrome" is a term which describes a phenomenon whereby government agencies faced with cuts will tend to cut the most visible and desirable elements of their programs in attempt to cull public support for restoration of funding. As this article describes it:
"When threatened with even modest cuts, cutthroat administrators can shut down only their departments’ most visible services and then sit back in comfort while they wait for legislators to capitulate. The syndrome has played a crucial role in making our government what it is today: a bloated monstrosity that is physically incapable of consuming less than it did the day before." 
How else to explain the non-shutdown "shutdown" of some government websites, which continue to operate (evidently on the same servers, at the same cost) for the purpose of denying would-be users access? How else to explain that veterans' benefits are on the chopping block, yet federal employee pensions remain untouched

Yet, while much emphasis has been placed on the visible elements which have been shut down, quietly the bulk of the federal government runs on auto-pilot. The following is a partial list of things the federal government was not prevented from doing today, despite supposedly lacking the basic funds to run web servers.

1. Surveillance of American citizens. "A government shutdown, set for Oct. 1 if lawmakers fail to strike a deal, would be unlikely to impede the National Security Agency's surveillance programs." (Yes, while the government can't update vital economic data to the St. Louis Fed's website, it can update certain other databases without issue.)

2. Continuing the drug war: "All agents in DEA field organizations are excepted from furlough because they support active counternarcotics investigations."

3. Sending out food stamps: "The authority to make October benefit payments comes from the Recovery Act, through which Congress provided “such sums as are necessary” to finance the SNAP benefit provided for in the Recovery Act." Makes you wonder why they bother making appropriations when such a blanket statement is included that a program can be funded indefinitely, doesn't it?

4. Litigating violations of EPA requirements: "Attorneys engaged in counseling, enforcement, administrative matters, or litigation will be excepted only for the time 
necessary to conduct an excepted activity" (Page 7).

5. Financing farm mortgages: "The Farm Credit Administration is the independent Federal agency responsible for regulating and examining the two agricultural Government-sponsored enterprises serving agriculture and rural America, namely the Farm Credit System and the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (Farmer Mac). FCA operates as a nonappropriated agency with a permanent, readily available, revolving fund. As such, FCA is not reliant on the passage of annual appropriation legislation for its operating expenses or ongoing operations."

6. Enforcing antitrust law: "To the extent that the circumstances of a reported merger or acquisition indicate that a failure by the government to challenge the transaction before it is consummated will result in a substantial impairment of the government’s ability to secure effective relief at a later time, the Commission will continue HSR investigations during the pendency of a shutdown" (Page 5).

7. Enforcing IRS regulations: "
Category B: Necessary for the Safety of Human Life or Protection of Government Property ... EXAMPLES (Category B): Maintaining criminal law enforcement and undercover operations" (Page 6).

8. Forecasting the weather: "In compliance with the restrictions of the Anti-Deficiency Act, the Department of Commerce will maintain the following services and activities during a lapse in FY14 appropriations: Weather, water, and climate observing, prediction, forecast, warning, and support."

9. Maintaining trademarks and patents (same link as #8).

10. Broadcasting propaganda on four continents and Cuba: "The BBG Office of General Counsel has issued a memorandum establishing that there is a sufficient legal basis for the Board’s determination that United States international broadcasting activities of the BBG qualify as “foreign relations essential to the national security” and are, therefore, excepted activities which may continue during the appropriations lapse. These excepted activities represent the minimum activities necessary to produce and distribute Voice of America (VOA) and Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) programming and to distribute programming of the BBG."
With that said: All 63 employees of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics were furloughed. Though, based on their track record, we can probably safely assume that these employees are "non-essential."

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