Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

Government Shutdowns Can Be Fatal

            Friedrich Trump (1869-1918

            Friedrich Trump (1869-1918

Note: I started researching and writing this essay late last week in anticipation of a government shutdown.  Well, as we all know, the government did shut down - for less than 3 days - which in a way, makes this piece a bit outdated . . . at least for the moment.  However, I  have decided to continue writing it and for two reasons: first, there is a good possibility that the government will shut down again after this coming February 8, and second, that the systemic political weaknesses and lack of what we might call civic maturity which led to the original shutdown, are still as firmly in place as ever . . .

 Precisely one hundred years ago (1918) more than a half billion people one-third of the people on earth) were infected with the "Spanish Flu." It is estimated that anywhere between 20 and 50 million people perished. This horrifying pandemic was no respecter of fame or fortune for among those who perished were:

Of a certainty, medical science, including the fields of Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases, has made incredible progress over the past century. And of course, in 1918, there was neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the Communicable Disease Center; both would be founded in 1946.  And although what we now call the National Institutes of Health has a history which goes back to 1887, it was poorly funded and incapable of providing little beyond palliative care during the 1918 pandemic.

Ironically - and tragically, we are today - one hundred years later - in the midst of one the worst flu seasons in at least the past half-century.  And to make matters even worse, this year's flu vaccine, which is supposed to protect subjects from the H3N2 strain, isn't working all that well.  And so, both the CDC and NIH (not to mention the FDA) are working around the clock to come up with a better, more efficacious vaccine.  That is, so long as the scientists, physicians and lab geeks are permitted to work. But alas, government shutdowns lead to federal workers being furloughed; they are not permitted access to their laboratories, may not use their government-issued computers - they cannot even volunteer to come in and work for no pay. 

During the last government shutdown (2013), the CDC shuttered most of its annual seasonal influenza program. It largely stopped tracking disease outbreaks across the country.  According to then-CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden, the 2013 shutdown “. . . was this time in which that I felt I really couldn’t do my job, as CDC director, of keeping Americans safe, because more than 8,500 of my staffers had been told to go home, and they do important things that protect Americans . . . . It’s unsafe, it’s terrible for government, it endangers Americans, and it doesn’t save any money. So it’s a really bad thing to have happen.

Without question, a government shutdown adversely effects hundreds of thousands of federal workers.  It also inconveniences millions of American and can - as in the case of  the current flu epidemic, endanger millions of lives. 

Truth to tell, it shouldn't have been that difficult to keep the government up and running; after all, our elected representatives are supposed to be our employees; we employ them to cobble together policies and programs which tend to benefit the greatest number of people. Most regrettably though, this ideal has become about as saccharine and unreal as Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  For generations, political leadership consisted of equal measures of skill, determination and the ability to compromise. But this is no longer the case.  We've gone from Emerson's dictum that "There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn't matter who gets the credit" to its modern incarnation which was first uttered by Sam Spade in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon: "We've got to have a fall-guy . . . a fall-guy is part of the price I'm asking . . . "

The politics behind the shutdown begin with assessing blame and end with trying to determine what capital can be made by either side.  Both Democrats and Republicans believe they can score big with the public in the 2018 midterm elections by pointing a finger - backed by memorable slur at - at the other side:

  • Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer: "If, God forbid, there's a shutdown, it will fall on the majority leader's shoulders and the president's shoulders.
  • House Speaker Paul Ryan: “I ask the American people to understand this: The only people in the way of keeping the government open are Senate Democrats.”
  • The President: “The Democrats want to shut down the Government over Amnesty for all.”
  • Jesse Ferguson, former Clinton campaign strategist: "Everyone knows this crisis could be averted if Republicans would pass a budget that didn't give them power to eventually deport dreamers, but they refuse to give that up. Donald Trump is like the arsonist who hopes you come home and blame the neighbors for the blaze."

Strategically, the Democrats feel (felt) themselves to be in the driver's seat.  If a continuing resolution stands a snowball's chance in Hades of being passed, it will take quite a few Democratic votes; the House of Lincoln is in such radical disarray that despite owning the House, Senate and White House, they cannot get anything done without their "good friends" on the other side of the aisle. Both sides are banking on the short-term memory loss which plagues the American voting public.  All the talk about Michael Wollf's book took a back seat to '45's potty-mouthed rampage, which in turn has taken a back seat to the government shutdown. There will no doubt be at minimum another 150 issues and idiocies between now and the November elections, by which the strategy of finger pointing over the government shutdown will likely be minimized to the point of invisibility.

It is pretty damned sophomoric to say either "Well, the Republicans simply cruel, heartless and don't give a fig about anything which might upset their conservative base," or, "the Democrats care far more about illegal immigrants than they do about the security of America."  This is not a game of "go fish." Major league politics is far more akin to Chess . . . a devastatingly difficult challenge which is far, far more than a game. 

So why not just do the right thing?  For only are our "leaders" using this latest crisis for their own political benefit, they are putting lives in jeopardy . . .  due to deportation, an even more disgruntled federal workforce and, as a century ago, a potential pandemic. 

Mr. President ask yourself: what would grandpa Opa Friedrich have you do?   

367 days down, 1,190 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone