Jacob Heilbrunn

In Praise of A Government Shutdown

The possibility of a government shutdown is being treated as equivalent to a fiscal Armageddon. In reality it's more likely to resemble the Y2K problem—it won't be that big a deal. Republicans and Democrats will huff and puff about how terrible each side is because Americans can't use the national parks for a few weeks.

But the shutdown could be an opportune moment to figure out how to prune government. In a way, President Obama will be given that opportunity since he will have to choose between what is being called "essential" and "nonessential services." The prudent thing would be to reopen the government slowly. In fact, Obama could set up a special commission that would have the responsibility of figuring out what to shutter permanently.

In my view, Congress itself should do the same. The Republicans in the House have gone after the budget, but have they looked at the size of their own staffs? It's no secret that staff sizes have become grossly corpulent since the 1970s. My own pet peeve is that congressmen and Senators now boast a praetorian guard of staff and advisers. They should be slashed. The limit could be five staff members for a Congressman and fifteen for a Senator. House Speaker John Boehner's staff has grown to 75—the staff's slogan is apparently "Once you've been to Boehnerland, you never leave." Is Boehner running a lifetime employment program? It would be interesting to see how much could be saved on salaries simply by limiting the size of congressional staff.

Once the government shutdown is lifted, no backpay should be doled out to government employees. The shutdown could even be permanently instituted on a yearly basis for one month. Among other pluses, congestion in the DC metro area would be considerably reduced. And citizens would be able to measure what they really miss when the government shuts down—and what they don't.

When government reopened, perhaps Democrats and Republicans could talk about real cuts to the budget rather than the bogus ones that are being floated. In other words, entitlement programs and Defense, which make up the real budget busters, not the puny programs currently being targeted by House Republicans. But it may take a government shutdown to concentrate minds on the fiscal crash that faces America—namely $2,500 in debt per person simply on the interest being paid on the debt by the end of this decade.

America can survive a government shutdown. But not that kind of debt. It needs, in other words, to go into survival mode.