Shutdown Grief

How the U.S. government shutdown impeded government’s good work

The statue of Grief and History stands near the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington. (CNS photo/ Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
The statue of Grief and History stands near the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington. (CNS photo/ Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
This past weekend, I ran the Chicago Marathon. I sometimes use my time running to think of ideas for columns, hashing out arguments and counter-arguments, and figuring out what I want to say, who I want to interview, and discern what people might find interesting or helpful. Knowing that my Church & State column would be due following the run, I decided to spend some time thinking about what’s going on in the world of government. Of course, with the government having been shut down for two weeks by race day, the answer was, not much.

The small but influential contingent of Tea Party Republicans that forced the government shutdown didn’t seem to have a single goal in mind. At first, they cited their opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and claimed that they wanted to delay its implementation for a year and repeal the medical devices tax that would pay for part of it. When this tactic gained no traction, the talking points shifted. The problem, they said, was big government in general. So they moved on from the ACA and instead insisted on maintaining, and reducing, sequester-level spending, gutting much of the social safety net along the way.

As government-free days dragged on, the media focused mostly on human interest stories. Couples whose weddings at national parks were in jeopardy. Families whose vacations to D.C. were ruined by closed museums and zoos. World War II veterans who broke down barriers to gain access to the memorial honoring their service.

These inconveniences paled in comparison to those families whose assistance to buy food was delayed or stopped. Or the servers working only for tips near federal buildings whose workers were furloughed and thus not coming in for lunch. And yes, even the 800,000 federal workers, so demonized by the far right, whose bills piled up while there was no income to pay them down.

Situations like these prompted religious leaders to act.

Catholic Charities USA delivered a petition to members of Congress calling for an end to the shutdown, citing cuts to Meals on Wheels, WIC, Head Start, and disruption in services to veterans and refugees. Several U.S. bishops suggested, too, that the shutdown was harming those in need, writing letters urging “Congress to fulfill the role of government and meet the basic needs of people.” And a group of religious leaders, including Nuns on the Bus and two former ambassadors to the Holy See, drafted a petition through Faithful America that called the shutdown’s effects antithetical to the pro-life movement:

There is nothing “pro-life” or Christian about taking food away from pregnant women and babies. It is hypocritical and shameful for those who tout their commitment to family values to show such callous indifference.

One of the linchpins of the Tea Party argument is that government is useless, that it causes more harm than good, and that it should stay out of the way. They’ve managed to bring back the “welfare queen” lie, the notion that government exists to take money from the rich and middle-class and white, and give it to poor minorities. If you’re not on food stamps, they want you to believe, the government is against you.

But this simply isn’t the case.

During the marathon, I noticed some of the ways that government plays a constructive role in society, and not just because Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel smiled and waved near the starting line as runners began the race. The morning of the race included a moment of silence, remembering the victims of the terror attack at the Boston Marathon earlier this year. This prompted me to think of the incredible logistics and security planning that went into making the Chicago Marathon as safe as possible for the 40,000 runners and 1 million spectators. Months of planning by local police and government agencies, in consultation with federal authorities and the National Guard, meant that this large civic event went off without a hitch. Events like this help local economies and thus provide jobs. Over the weekend, my friends and I stayed in a hotel, ate at local restaurants, visited the Art Institute, and did some shopping. If government hadn’t been able to provide for safety and security, the marathon wouldn’t have happened, the economy would have lost out, and society, and individuals, would have suffered. This is but a tiny example of the good that government does, but one that stuck out to me vividly over the past week.

Have you ever spent some time during your day to consider how government affects your life in a positive way? Ideally, you shouldn’t notice. When things function well, as they should, they generally go unseen. But it doesn’t mean they’re absent. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren put it well back in 2011:

Government is capable of so much good. If elected leaders don’t understand this, they shouldn’t be in office. Citizens must remember this sad saga next November.