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Book of Matthew: Government shutdown 101

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: Opinions


If Congress doesn’t agree on a budget for the current fiscal year by April 8, the federal government will be forced to shut down. The odds of this happening vary from day to day, depending on the mercurial negotiations currently being held on Capitol Hill. But with the Democratic and Republican proposals still differing by several billion dollars, it’s certainly a real possibility.

It’s been 15 years since fiscal disagreements between President Clinton and House Republicans led to the two most recent government shutdowns—from Nov. 14 through Nov. 19, 1995 and from Dec. 16, 1995 through Jan. 6, 1996. Most Brandeis students probably don’t remember anything about them—I certainly don’t. To us, the idea of a government shutdown doesn’t sound all that threatening. Like many Americans, we generally live our lives without thinking about the role our government plays in them. Unfortunately, all accounts of the last shutdowns show that we cannot afford our own ignorance.

Planning to apply for a federal student loan? Better do it soon, because the government won’t be able to process the paperwork in a shutdown. Studying abroad next summer? Hurry up and get your passport. During the last shutdowns, approximately 200,000 passport applications were not processed.

Of course, these are minor complaints. But take a step back and look at the bigger picture—it gets bleaker.

If the economic recovery seemed tenuous before, it will only get worse if the government closes its doors. Between the last two shutdowns, the government furloughed more than one million federal employees from nearly all departments. Congress later voted to pay these employees back for the time they were sent home, but nothing guarantees that this Congress—especially the Tea Party Republicans—would support a similar measure this time around.

Either way, with a huge swath of its manpower sitting at home, the government will be forced to severely cut back its daily functions. While programs like Social Security, Medicare and the Veteran’s Administration are guaranteed by law to continue, this only helps people who are already enrolled. New applicants may have their paperwork delayed; in fact, during the November 1995 shutdown, the Clinton Administration estimated that the unfunded government could not process the claims of 112,000 new Social Security recipients or issue 212,000 new or replacement Social Security cards. The applications of 400,000 newly eligible Medicare recipients were also delayed.

National parks, museums and monuments also closed during the last shutdowns, and would likely do so again. This may seem like the least of our worries, but consider this: When these locations closed 15 years ago, they lost a combined nine million visitors and several hundred million dollars in tourist revenue. (The 368 National Park Service sites lost $14.2 million tourist dollars each day they were closed.)

“Sounds bad,” you say, “but how will all this affect me?” In most cases, it won’t—at least, not directly. But there is a tremendous amount of economic activity and potential tax revenue at stake here, and both are in short supply these days. Every cut damages the chances of struggling businesses and strained local governments to operate and to hire prospective young workers like us.

Oh, and if you’re lucky enough to have a job already, don’t count on your tax refund. Congress’s unfortunate timing means that if the government does shut down, it will do so right as most Americans are filing their taxes and waiting for their money back. Since the IRS will likely be grossly understaffed, taxpayers should expect delays.

Speaking of the IRS, the Clinton Administration estimated that during the November 1995 shutdown, closed IRS enforcement divisions lost about $400 million in revenue. There’s little doubt that today’s deficit-obsessed Republicans will push for even more spending cuts to make up for similar losses, which, I might add, is how this whole mess began in the first place.

Here’s one crisis that will be too big to ignore. All told, it would be better for all of us if it ends as soon as it begins. This will only happen if our representatives in Washington know that we are getting fed up.