Government Funding Priorities Upside Down During Shutdown

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Posted Oct. 23, 2013

Interview with Mattea Kramer, research director with National Priorities Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

shutdown

The Tea Party-led shutdown of the federal government ended after 16 days, when the Senate and House agreed on a temporary measures to reopen the government and pay the country’s debts. But as Americans try to pick up the pieces, the nation faces another set of congressional deadlines and another government shutdown on Jan. 15 and a new debt ceiling cliffhanger on Feb. 7.

The shutdown focused attention on what Congress considers "essential" versus "non-essential" government services, as employees at the Pentagon kept working while the distribution of infant formula to poor mothers for their babies was put on hold, the shuttering of some Head Start programs, the closure of a National Institutes of Health Clinical Center that treats hundred of patients for cancer and the closure of national parks and monuments, which triggered a loss of income for thousands of nearby small businesses.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mattea Kramer, research director with the National Priorities Project, who discusses the hardship caused by the priorities chosen during the government shutdown; how the American people can effectively make their voices heard to prevent another similar shutdown in three months; and the possibility of benefit cuts to social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare in the coming Congressional–White House budget negotiations.

MATTEA KRAMER: The official guidance during the shutdown was that essential programs were those that "protected life and property." And that was a term used to include typically, all national security programs. So certainly, the Department of Defense maintained its various military programs during the shutdown; it temporarily had civilian furloughs but those were reversed almost immediately, so the hundreds of thousands of employees of the DoD essentially proceeded apace during the shutdown, and that included some stealth operations overseas to attack terrorist targets in Somalia and some other places, so we saw this traditional definition of national security being considered deeply essential during the shutdown and therefore not being affected therefore by the shutdown. Whereas domestic programs – whether it was nutrition assistance for children, funding for domestic violence shelters, funding for the early childhood education program Head Start, or even cancer care for children at the National Institutes of Health – all of those things were considered "non-essential" during the shutdown. Apparently, our lawmakers did not consider them to "protect life and property." Not only could you argue with that, I think it's deeply troubling for many people to hear that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: During the shutdown there were some demonstrations by federal employees who wanted to go back to work, but it seems there wasn't much other opposition in the street. What can regular Americans do to make sure we don't have a repeat of this in a couple of months?

MATTEA KRAMER: There was not the kind of wide-scale protests that I think many of our peer nations would have seen in a similar situation. It takes a lot to get Americans protesting in the streets, it does. And as we look ahead to these next deadlines, what we as a people can do to prevent another kind of calamity like the one we just came through, we are absolutely powerful. And this is a message that I think sometimes people find hard to believe, but it's true. Our elected officials in Congress pay attention to the calls they get from constituents. Twenty angry people making calls to their elected official can scare the heck out of that representative or senator, because in that office they do a calculation and they know when they hear from a handful of angry people they know there are a lot more out there. So if we actually organized ourselves – or even in a disorganized manner – if we were simply angry enough as a people to call en masse, overwhelmingly, our elected officials and say we will not stand for this anymore. If you continue to run our government this way, we will boot you out of office, boy, would we see a change.

BETWEEN THE LINES: This is speculation, but people were so mad, especially at the tea party members of Congress who held the government hostage in an effort to stop Obamacare, that I wonder if this could have an impact on the 2014 elections, although no doubt it would have a bigger impact if the elections were next month.

MATTEA KRAMER: Yes, I think it could have some impact; I also think you're right that voters do have relatively short memories. It will depend on how the campaigns are run. If voters are reminded that, for instance, it was their elected official who supported a strategy to shut down the government because of Obamacare, I think that that could effectively jog voters' memories. But it won't have the same impact it would if elections were next month as opposed to next year. And the truth is that if elections were next month, we never would have seen that strategy roll out, because elected officials would be too afraid of retribution at the polls.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There have already been tremendous budget cuts, and in the next few months it looks like President Obama is likely to bargain over cuts to Medicare and Social Security. What impact do you think the shutdown and most Americans' response to it will have to these proposed additional cuts?

MATTEA KRAMER: I'm not sure that the shutdown we've just come through will impact the discussion about Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Those programs are being talked about under the term "entitlement reform," and people agree or disagree on whether that's an appropriate term. I'm not sure the shutdown will guide Americans in their thinking about that issue. It is the case that President Obama has signaled some willingness to make changes to those programs in exchange, for instance, to tax reform in which we raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. The Republicans are certainly interested in this idea of entitlement reform and rolling back benefits in these programs in order to reduce long-term federal spending. They are not, however, interested in raising tax rates on the top-earning Americans, so whether there ever could be a deal struck anyhow is unclear, but you're right to say that it is being talked about that perhaps seems more likely than it ever was under George W. Bush.

To see analysis and accompanying interactive visuals, visit the National Priorities Project at nationalpriorities.org.

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