An unintended consequence? Shutdown highlights the importance and value of government.

THE BIG IDEA: Many conservative hard-liners inside and closely allied with the Trump administration, who have made careers out of bashing the federal bureaucracy, believed a partial shutdown would validate their view that government can function just fine without “nonessential” employees. In fact, the past 33 days have done the opposite.

It turns out that just because workers have been categorized as “nonessential” does not mean the work they do is not important. That’s why President Trump keeps calling back more and more furloughed workers to do things like process tax refunds, inspect food, approve loans and issue food stamps.

With no end in sight to the five-week-old impasse, the effects are poised to become both worse and more obvious to more people. One enduring result could be that Americans collectively come to appreciate the value government provides in their everyday lives to a greater degree. The federal court system, for instance, may need to halt major operations after Feb. 1, and the Agriculture Department does not have funding to pay food stamp benefits come March to roughly 40 million people.

Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address that government could not provide the solution to our problems. “Government is the problem,” he declared. This has been a dominant mentality of the Reagan epoch, which arguably we continue to live in 38 years after he gave that speech. After all, even Bill Clinton declared in 1996 — just days after the end of what until this month was the longest shutdown ever — that “the era of big government is over.” The problem of the present moment, however, is that the government is increasingly struggling to deliver services and benefits that many Americans count on, even if they take them for granted.

— For the slay-the-beast types who hold plum posts in the Trump administration, this shutdown has turned into a teachable moment on what exactly the government does and how important it is to people’s lives. It’s so easy to score cheap political points by talking in the abstract about government “waste.” It’s hard to actually trim “fat” because, almost always, it turns out there’s either a powerful political constituency or a legitimate policy justification for virtually everything federal agencies do.

Several administration officials have acknowledged privately that they did not recognize the breadth of the shutdown’s impact, and the logistical problems it would cause, until they came back from their Christmas vacations, days after the shutdown started on the night of Dec. 21. White House aides have told my colleagues that Trump continues to be largely uninterested in the minutiae of managing government agencies and services. Political appointees have spent the past month trying to fully understand the scope of the shutdown and doing as much as they can — sometimes defying previous interpretations of the law — to mitigate the fallout for Americans.

The shutdown has also put in stark relief the degree to which red, rural states like Alaska and Alabama tend to be more dependent on federal assistance than bluer, urban and wealthier states like California and Connecticut.

White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is asking agency leaders to identify by the close of business tomorrow the highest-impact programs that would be jeopardized if the shutdown continues into March and April. Erica Werner, Damian Paletta, Juliet Eilperin and Mike DeBonis report: “The request is the first known ask from a top White House official for a broad accounting of the spreading impact of the shutdown. So far, top White House officials have been particularly focused on wait times at airport security but not the sprawling interruption of programs elsewhere in the government, such as those that provide food stamps or safety inspections of various kinds. …

Mulvaney’s request for an accounting of the pending impacts of the shutdown startled some federal officials, who had been struggling to manage the fallout from the partial shuttering of a quarter of the federal government, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and others. Many of these officials have been trying to determine how to keep some agency functions operating at a time when a growing number of workers are refusing to show up because they aren’t getting paid. Now, in addition to dealing with the daily problems caused by the shutdown, Mulvaney is forcing them to comprehend how to run parts of their bureaucracies without money for an extended period of time. …

 

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