Things are “curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice put it. However, Wonderland is a lot less baffling than Washington, D.C. in the midst of a massive government shutdown. I keep expecting things to make sense but in really there is no sense in all this. It feels a lot more like Catch 22 than Alice in Wonderland.
There really is no point to the government shutdown. Republicans have already tacitly conceded that the shutdown has not stopped Obamacare. The health insurance exchanges are online, albeit sporadically given the overwhelming demand and the apparently poor job of software engineering by the contractor for the federal exchange. You would think that since their tactics obviously didn’t work they might concede reality, get over their snit and reopen the government. After all, Senate Democrats have already conceded to Republicans on the size of the continuing resolution, a cut from last year’s Spartan levels.
But, no, that would mean a loss of face, which is way more important than leaving much of the federal government shut down. House Republicans won’t allow a simple up or down vote to be taken on funding the government, although the votes are there to reopen the government. However, the House did vote 408-0 to pay federal workers like me, retroactively of course, for sitting at home. It’s reasonable to ask, “Gosh, if you are going to eventually pay us anyhow, why not send us back to work?” That way at least national parks would reopen and people desperately needing to get into NIH cancer trials might get the opportunity. But no, that’s can’t happen because you see if we are actually ordered to do something productive then Republicans can’t make people’s lives miserable, and you can’t prove the government is shut down unless people’s lives are miserable. Take out the misery and the whole thing becomes pointless.
In my case, what this amounts to is I am getting an IOU not just to stay home, but also to actively not work. It was made very clear to me when I left work a week ago: I was not to do anything resembling government work, under penalty of law. I’m forbidden from even turning on my government furnished laptop computer, or logging into my government GMail account from my personal computer. Which means I am making excellent money, more than $60/hour plus benefits, to mostly paint my house. Yesterday it was our upstairs bathroom, which needed touching up before our house goes on the market in a couple of years. It actually required totally repainting the room when the paint I purchased turned out to be glossier than what was actually on it. I figure if this goes on long enough, I’ll run out of chores to do around the house. I still have a list that includes cleaning and re-staining the deck, painting part of our master bedroom, washing all our windows, mulching the garden and removing the last of the weeds from it as well. Then I will start on the next set of non-house chores: getting the car inspected and taken in for a tune up. It used to be these were hassles but now I can do them at a time that suits me and eventually get paid obscenely for the privilege. Plus I can sleep in late, although I seem to be up by 8 AM anyhow. For this I can thank our dysfunctional Congress.
Defense Secretary Hagel has decided that most of his employees are essential after all, and called them back in to work. No phone call has arrived from my chain of command. I assume our systems are running okay, but obviously I can’t find out. I do know that when this hullaballoo is over I’ll be just one more civil servant trying to make the chaos stacking up in the office into something orderly and attainable again. All our yearly plans will have to be rethought and re-scoped, at additional time and expense, of course. In all our project plans, there was no place for a task called “government shutdown” but clearly something will have to give: scope, time or cost. Not even a government shutdown can change these facts of life.
The real crime here is the loss of governance. Nowhere in our constitution is there a Hastert Rule, which says only items that a majority of the House’s Republicans agree to vote on will get voted on. This rule, if you think about it, is more insidious than the filibuster. The filibuster is a way to ensure the minority gets heard. The Hastert Rule allows no opportunity for the minority in the House to have any say on what comes before the House. It becomes even more like Catch 22 when you consider that many Republicans are totally okay with breaching the debt ceiling, in fact they are eager to see it happen. It’s not such a big deal, they say. Simply use cash coming in to pay off our foreign creditors. Everyone else can wait. My goodness, what kind of glue are they sniffing? If just one social security payment is late because of this, the Republican Party is done: dead as a doornail in the 2014 elections. It’s amazing they can be so totally clueless about the obvious. It just goes to show the danger of ideology because it can overrule any common sense whatsoever. The real “hostage taking” that President Obama referred to today will be the Republican Party. It has already being held hostage by the Tea Party. It’s like that scene from Blazing Saddles where the sheriff points a gun at his own head.
All work in government is essential because Congress authorized it. It’s just that a lot of the work does not seem essential when you did not vote for the law. The work I do involves planning projects that take years to move from idea to implementation. It means lots of requirements, prototypes of system changes, vetting with user groups, detailed project plans, project tracking and oversight and lots of levels of testing. Declare this work nonessential and you make government less effective. In my case, the impact is that our scientific data is less likely to be shared, or shared as quickly as it could be. It could impact interdisciplinary studies needed to understand the impact of human activities on our climate.
I doubt it’s more important for me to sit at home and paint walls instead. However, if this is how you want to stop government from governing, it is effective, just much more costly than letting government do its business. If Congress wants to tell us this work is no longer essential, it can pass a law and we’ll stop.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep painting. The money is great!