Blossoms, But No Budget

It’s Cherry Blossom season in Washington, D.C. Each year at this time hundreds of thousands of people from across the country and around the world flock to our nation’s Capitol to stroll along the banks of the Tidal Basin, “ooo-ing” and “ahhh-ing” at the vibrant pink flowers on hundreds of trees, the air filled with falling petals and the sweet smell of their blooms.

But on the eve of a possible shutdown of the federal government, the many tourists visiting Washington smell something rotten. On Saturday morning they may well awake to a city where much of what they’ve journeyed to see will be shuttered.

Without an agreement between Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress and President Obama on the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, the federal government will run out of money at 12:01am on Saturday, April 9. At that moment, government operations begin grinding to a halt.

On the Washington Mall, the Smithsonian’s museums and galleries will not open on Saturday morning. No one will be operating the elevators at the Washington Monument, or staffing the booths at the U.S. Capitol’s Visitors Center. Tours of the Capitol, the White House and the FBI Building will be cancelled. The Washington Zoo won’t open its gates, and no one will visit the Panda House.

The annual Cherry Blossom Parade, scheduled for Saturday, will be canceled. High School bands and other marching units from across the country, many of whom have planned months for this day, will have no chance to perform.

National parks and monuments around the nation will turn visitors away. Spring road repairs on our interstate highways will be delayed. New federal grants for medical research will be put on hold.

On past occasions when the government has run out of money, many federal agencies have been forced to close down. The Office of Management and Budget can issue exemptions for essential services and usually offer a blanket exemption for operations that “provide for the national security.” Still, many of the over 4.3 million federal employees will face furloughs. And for those good souls who might want to continue working without pay, well, guess what? It’s illegal.

Even “exempted” workers, including men and women in uniform, who continue to work will not be paid until a budget agreement is reached. Military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya will continue, along with related training of forces that might be assigned to future operations there or elsewhere. But our troops who risk their lives in these causes will have to do so with the added stress of knowing that their base pay is on back order.

The one major difference for me between this potential government shutdown and the last one back in 1995 when I was a congressional staffer in Washington is the internet. Back then everything was paper, and the documents you needed were sitting on your desk. Today we are so reliant on the web and the immediate access to all manner of government information that we could be lost without it. Has the government paid its internet service providers? Will sites be maintained and updated? For an organization like NPP, a disruption in the flow of information on the federal budget could seriously impede our work, even as we try to keep abreast of the status of deliberations on FY2011 and FY2012 spending.

Obviously, certain necessary functions of government will continue. Social Security checks will go out. Medicare beneficiaries will not be turned away at hospitals, though the hospitals themselves may find their reimbursements slow in arriving if the shutdown lasts very long. And the IRS will still expect you to file your taxes on time, although it’s likely that refund payments will be delayed. Someone will feed the pandas.

It’s easy to point to Tea Partiers in Congress and place the blame for a government shutdown on their demands for deeper cuts in federal spending than even some GOP members are willing to support. Certainly their firm stance has made a difficult situation tougher. And we land hard on the seemingly extraneous policy initiatives added by Republicans that have further slowed the process. But it’s only fair to point out that Congress and the President failed to enact a budget by the start of FY2011, which began back on October 1st at a time when all three players – House, Senate and Oval Office – were controlled by Democrats. That deadline was a full month before the November 2010 elections, and a further month and a half before the newly elected members of Congress took office.

The irony, of course, is that the federal employees most responsible for the stalemate – members of Congress and the President – will continue to be paid in the event of a shutdown, unlike their more than 4 million colleagues. Members of Congress get paid $174,000 a year, and members of the congressional leadership including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) get paid even more. The president's salary is $400,000 a year.

There is an old saying that goes, "you get the government you deserve." I've used it myself from time to time to fault voters when they've made, to my mind, poor choices. But now, today, I have to say, we all deserve better.