Today is the first of October. For some it is just the beginning of another month but for those of us who work for the Federal government, it marks the beginning of a new fiscal year. A new year should signify a fresh start; a new beginning. However, this year, due to the inability of our Congress to approve a new Federal budget, the government of the United States of America is officially closed. Yes, that is right folks, the self-proclaimed leading country of the free world, the one so many others strive to emulate, the one who is supposed to be a role model for functioning democracies around the globe, is shuttered for business because our elected officials could not pass a budget. Or as a headline in the Washington Post read this morning: "Capitol of Free World: Closed until further notice." Happy new year folks!
So what does it mean when a first world government shuts down due to a lack of funds? For some of the most public employees and their customers, it will be business as usual. Mail will continue to be delivered, borders and airspace will still be patrolled by employees who will get paid at a later date, most portions of overseas Embassies will remain open, and yes Congress will continue to "work" and get paid. For others, it means work simply stops until a new budget is passed. Federal employees, many with families to care for, will go without paychecks until this battle of the wills is resolved. It isn't clear as to whether or not these employees will eventually receive their missed pay or will simply have to re-prioritize their budgets to accommodate the lost funds. (Actually, this is what the government should be doing, isn't it?). Because of some fast dealing and the stroke of the president's pen shortly before midnight, members of the armed forces will continue to receive their paychecks in a timely manner. As a non-military government employee I went to bed last night believing that I too would be furloughed. It was only after coming into work at the Embassy this morning that I learned that I, along with the rest of my Department of State colleagues at the Embassy, would be exempted from the furloughs (for the time being at least). That's not a big sigh of relief but rather a small one.
What I wonder through all of this, however, is how did we as a country end up where we are today? The Federal government shut down two times in recent history, in late 1995 and again in early 1996. As was the case both then and now, each party blamed the other for Congress's inaction and inability to pass compromise legislation. Politics, in a democratic society, is after all, a lesson in compromise where, despite protests otherwise, the United States has and continues to fail miserably. And the budget debate is by no means a new one. In other years the legislative stalemate has resulted in numerous continuing resolutions essentially meaning that the same budget will carry over from one year into the next with no changes being made. Perhaps these continuing resolutions are a form of non-committal compromise but however you define them, they have become an all too common way of doing business. In fact, as of just yesterday, the U.S. government was in the final hours of yet another continuing resolution. Will this coming year result in more of the same or will one party hold out until the other changes their minds, or will both parties agree to mutually acceptable compromises? However it plays out, to quote a friend, it is time that our elected government stop acting like three-year-olds on the playground and find a middle ground. Your country and your constituents are counting on you.
I have no idea how long this stalemate will continue. It could be hours, days or perhaps even weeks. I wonder what it will take for Congress to agree on a budget when the only thing they can agree on is that it is the other party's fault. The bigger question I have, however, is why aren't Americans more angry about all of this and why aren't we calling our representatives to voice our frustrations. Yes, some people are angry but it appears to mostly be those people whose paychecks are directly effected by the shutdown. And as history has shown, the American public doesn't have a lot of sympathy for government workers since to many, a government shutdown is viewed as a "Washington" problem.
There are lots of suggestions floating around in cyberspace about what might motivate Congress to actually perform their jobs. The most prominent one, the current chorus of voting them out, sounds good but repeatedly, as elections approach frustrations and dissatisfaction with previous job performance are all but forgotten. (It becomes especially easy to forget when the incumbents bills themselves as the good guys and gals with the other party always being blamed). And besides, this isn't an election year and the budget issue must be resolved sooner rather than later so at this point, elections are the farthest thing from many of our minds. I firmly believe that Congress will only act in a meaningful way when they hear the message that the people who elect them want compromise, change, a resolution. They want Congress to act like adults rather than toddlers. This is what I want too so I'm going to do my part and let my representatives know exactly how I feel. I encourage all of you to do the same. Email, Tweet, call, or post a Facebook message . Just do it.