Viewpoint: Hung Up for a Day


If you were looking the other way you may not have noticed it, but the federal government actually closed for one day just before Thanksgiving last year. Congress and the president could not agree on funding levels for emergency appropriations to keep the federal establishment running; so on Monday, November 23, the maintenance people came out and started padlocking federal buildings. All but "essential" government employees were sent home.

In other parts of the country, this probably was not a big story. Everyone knew from the beginning that the government was being closed as a polite exercise in political gymnastics. It was only a matter of hours, a day at the most, before an agreement would be reached and the bureaucracy would be back at the same stand, as fat and prosperous as ever.

In Washington, however, which is before all else a company town, the news media treated this mock closing of the government with the same sort of earnest excitement that the news media in Los Angeles would devote to a high-octane earthquake. Or folks in Chicago would display if Mrs. O'Leary's cow came back from the dead, kicked over the lantern, and burned the city down again. Television and radio stations ran constant bulletins and up-dates, with on-the-scene reporters calling in breathless accounts. "They're actually closing down the Department of Interior now."

Reporters interviewed scores of angry bureaucrats as they streamed out of downtown offices. Most of them gave the impression that they had been personally savaged by the budgetary impasse. Almost all blamed the president. They might, with equal logic, have blamed Congress, but of course they didn't. Congress was holding out for a higher spending level than the president was.

Having witnessed this whole event at close hand, I was struck by a number of points:

1. Even though the government did, in fact, close, nothing much happened. It is not, after all, urgent necessity that brings us to maintain this far-flung federal establishment. Even with no time to make adjustments, we could, in a pinch, get by with a fraction of the current federal work force. We did without them for a day. Perhaps we could get by for a week. Or 10 days. That would surely involve some inconveniences, but in a time of uncontrolled deficits and budgetary crisis, why not close the government one day each month for the next year?

2. Only a fraction of the current government payroll is said to be "essential." It seems at least plausible that we could do without many of these nonessential employees altogether.

3. The fact that we could trim the federal establishment doesn't mean for a moment that we willeven under the administration of a president who is as tight-fisted and has as much experience with low-budget productions as any who is likely to come to the White House. In the end, the money is always restored. The bureaucracy gets its way. This is so as a simple matter of incentives. In government, any party that takes the lead in reforming the civil service so as to reduce employment opportunities for bureaucrats will lose the votes of those who lose their jobs (along with the votes of all those persons whom they can influence). Losing votes is not an attractive proposition to politicians, which is why the bureaucracy sails on under conditions organized more or less to suit the bureaucracy.

4. The above reason is why we have a strange law on the books: this may come as a surprise to many, as it did to me, but it is currently illegal for a federal employee to volunteer his time and effort for the benefit of the agency for which he works. This is no doubt a good way to guarantee the hiring of more federal employees, but it is ironic that, when the Reagan administration is seeking to stimulate volunteerism in the private sector, the laws of the land prohibit federal employees from volunteering their effort to the achievement of goals that they loudly proclaim to be quite important.

The closing of the government for one day brought home how hard it is to make significant budget cuts in the ordinary political way. I was reminded of the old television program Queen for a Day. The show always featured some hapless mother of six children whose husband had fallen under a bulldozer. For one glorious afternoon, they put a tinseled crown on her head, gave her a new toaster, and took her out to dinner. The next morning, she was back to the same hard life she had known, burdened with the additional difficulty of having fallen behind a day in the housework. Such is more or less the position of the taxpayer in today's world. Government was cut back for a daybut it was too good to last.

Footnote: Guess how many federal government employees were laid off in the first year of Reagan's presidency? You might think from the great commotion over budget cuts that half the civilian employees in government had been fired. Not so. According to a final tally prepared by the Office of Personnel Management, the first year of Ronald Reagan's budget cuts resulted in lay-offs for 2,840 federal workers. In an ordinary year, 10–12 percent of federal jobs are opened through attrition. In this calendar year, the government attrition rate fell to only 8.2 percent (which amounts to about 160,000 vacancies). So the loss of 2,840 jobs represents only a tiny fraction of the numbers leaving the government anyway. The number of jobs eliminated amounted to about one-tenth of one percent of total federal employment. Big deal.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and author of The Squeeze.