What if the Government Shuts Down?

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The latest crisis invented by the national media is the great October "train wreck" - a confrontation between a liberal president and a conservative Congress - that will "shut down the government."

The angst is palpable: what about the welfare checks? The mail and the military? The aircraft controllers and class trips to the Capitol? The Clinton administration is already describing a government shutdown as something between a catastrophe and a cataclysm.

Gravely intones Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin: "Those who play that game are taking an irresponsible risk with the financial health of this nation by threatening to interrupt government operations, delay payments to federal beneficiaries and creditors and raise questions of the government's ability to pay its obligations."

Or Budget Director Alice Rivlin: "All of those activities that are 'essential' would be being carried on by federal employees who are volunteering to stay at their posts. Think about air traffic controllers who haven't been paid for two weeks, think about prison guards who haven't been paid for two weeks, think about border control agents. There comes a point at which you may not want to be relying on the public-spiritedness of people who are standing between you and disaster."

But before you head for Canada or convert your dollars into deutschmarks, take a deep breath. It's happened before, and outside the Beltway hardly anyone complained. As former Budget Director Jim Miller said: "Only the big spenders noticed."

The three-day, 1990 shutdown occurred when President Bush refused to sign a continuing resolution because the House rejected the budget proposal from the infamous 1990 budget summit. Granted, the three days were a weekend and the Columbus Day holiday, so much of government wasn't scheduled to be on the job anyway. But planes kept flying, the armed forces kept operating, prison guards continued to work, and other "essential employees" reported as usual.

This year, the government could shut down if a budget bill is not signed before October 1, when a new fiscal year starts, or if the United States reaches its $4.9 trillion debt limit - probably about mid-October - without a law raising the limit. If either happens, the government will be out of money unless Congress passes and the president signs a "continuing resolution" to provide money on a temporary basis.

Obviously, a "shutdown" will be felt by many employees of the federal government and by businesses that depend on their trade. However, remember that there are a lot of "essential" employees who will still be on the job.

Security Security recipients and federal and military retirees will get their October checks as usual. (For that matter, the money for them will still be available for later months if anybody is around to process the checks.) The mail will still be delivered because the Post Office is a semiautonomous corporation. Indeed, the Clinton administration has already drawn up a plan that would keep air traffic controllers, meat and poultry inspectors, and border control agents on the job, and ensure that Social Security checks are issued.

The obvious solution, somehow overlooked by Alice Rivlin and the other doomsayers, is the continuing resolution. The Congress could challenge the president if a budget is still in doubt at the end of September by passing a continuing resolution that authorized spending only at the reduced levels of growth they want to make permanent later. Or they could put their welfare, Medicare, Medicaid and tax cut proposals - all the measures that the President has been making noises about vetoing - into one big package along with authority to raise the debt ceiling. In either case, the president would have two equally unpalatable choices: to agree to the Republican plans to reduce the size of government or to shut the government down.

The administration hopes that what it is saying now about the ill effects of a government shutdown will so incense the general public that it will prevent the Congress from pressing forward with its own budget priorities of eliminating Departments, reducing the growth of federal spending, and shifting responsibility for some services back to the states.

In short, what is going on here is only a political power struggle. So concerned are the liberals that the conservative Congress might actual reduce the power of the central government, that they are trying to pre-empt the entire argument by predicting Armageddon.

More likely, though, more and more people are going to conclude that if we can get along with only "essential" government services for a week or two, there's no reason we can't get along without the "non-essential" services forever.