Sunday, April 10, 2011 | 2 a.m.
What is essential?
As I write this, there is a 60-40 chance that the government will have avoided a shutdown at midnight Friday. Unlike the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, though, if that had happened, I would not be cheering. It is a sentiment, I am certain, that is shared among most Americans.
I have been trying to understand the necessity for the brinkmanship that has been played out in Washington, especially over a few billion dollars. Don’t go crazy just yet. What I mean by that is that, when put in the perspective of a $1,500,000,000,000 budget deficit (that’s $1.5 trillion for those of you who will be educated in Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Nevada), the money that Congress has been prepared to shut down the government over amounts to barely a rounding error.
Oh, yes, and there is something else driving the fight over money — clean air and reproductive rights — which will probably remain the sticking points right to the end. So much for fiscal focus. Some things never change.
In the run-up to what I hope is not a shutdown of all but essential services, the discussion centered on what the immediate and midterm consequences of closing government agencies and programs would be.
What the American people have been told throughout this rhetorical battle of political wills is that only nonessential services would be shut down should the government run out of money. To most of us, that means U.S. military personnel will still get paid, regardless of what the spin doctors try to prescribe, law enforcement agencies across the country will still operate and the folks who gather secrets around the world and try to keep our political leadership ahead of the intelligence curve — that would be the CIA types — all will continue to do their jobs. Because they are essential.
That makes me question what else may be essential to the people of this country. The easy stuff to shutter when doors have to close would be national parks. How many Americans actually visit them with their kids, anyway? A few million?
And what about the museums and monuments that attract a few million people each year to give them a better understanding of the arts and our nation’s heritage and about who we are as a people and what we can become? We can all agree that as desirable as those institutions are to a more well-rounded society, they are not essential. After all, those places didn’t exist 150 years ago, and we did all right.
We can go right down the list of nonessential services, and the people who pay the bills to get those perks of citizenship can agree, at least to themselves, that shutting them down is no big deal. At least not in the short term.
So what if we look at some other services government provides and views as essential, and consider shutting them down? After all, much of the ideological fight in this country is over the role of government itself, so broadening the definition may promote a healthier debate.
People went to a tea party one day and came away thinking that much of the money we spend doing government things just doesn’t need to be spent. I agree with that sentiment, by the way. The problem, as always, is in the details. And the details of those clamoring for a shutdown are things the advocates of government collapse can’t be concerned with at this time.
Another group of people takes a more calculated approach to this mission. It is the folks who don’t believe the government has a role in our lives other than to provide for the common defense — Army, Navy, Marines, etc. — just like it says in the Constitution. They conveniently forget, however, that our Constitution says so much more about promoting the general welfare, providing for domestic tranquility and other pesky ideals that don’t fit their narrow vision.
And, yes, there are others who actually care about finding the right balance of government and private enterprise, governmental laws and individual rights and the general role that governing must play in the lives of those who have consented to be governed. Those folks are disappearing fast in the current political landscape.
One reason we have become so polarized about the role of government, I am convinced, is the definition of what is essential. That is why I am hoping, should the government have closed down, that the president takes the lead and actually explains to the people what is and is not essential and what the government does and does not do that advances the lives of the citizenry.
The best example of that which is not necessary is air travel.
With gasoline only costing about $3.80 a gallon in most places, there is no reason why folks can’t get in their cars and drive to wherever they need to go. They don’t have to fly there just because it is more convenient, perhaps safer and less time-consuming. And who says that mail and other products need to travel overnight? We got along before FedEx so we can manage without the speed of delivery we have. And most people would jump at the chance to get their bills by Pony Express rather than airmail, if either still exists.
With one exception, perhaps, of essential military travel, there is no reason why we have to keep the planes in the air if saving taxpayer money hangs in the balance. Simply put, air travel is not essential.
So, what the president should do is give some needed time off to the air traffic controllers. Let them sit at home just like the workers at the Commerce Department, the Health and Human Services Department and so on. Although all of these services may be essential in my eyes, I understand that others may disagree. That’s America. But we still don’t need air travel.
Sending the air traffic controllers home will shut down the airports. When that happens, we can have a real, engaged discussion about whether we want government to have a role in our lives and what that role should be. In short, are air traffic controllers essential to our lives? When we reach that decision, we can then ponder the larger question: How much support do we give to an ideological minority in Congress that dreams nightly of a government shutdown?
This Sunday morning, we may be in the middle of that shutdown. If so, I hope the president has been bold enough to declare air controllers as nonessential, which will shut the airports down.
Don’t worry, Las Vegas. If he does that, it won’t last long. That’s because what appears to be nonessential on the surface — just like so many government services on the “shutdown” list — is crucial to how we all spend our lives. That message will get to Congress with the speed of light, and this silliness will end.
At least until the next time.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.