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How to shut down the federal government properly

By Bruce Walker
web posted June 11, 2001

Very soon the now "divided" Congress will go through an annual shadow dance known as the federal budget process. The threat of a government shut down will be hung over the head of President George W. Bush, with all the terrors that holds for the American people. Congress will pass last minute resolutions to allow the federal government to keep running, and as our federal legislators "work" until the next deadline arises, another resolution will be passed. And so on.

George W. BushPresident Bush should consider calling this bluff. What would happen if the federal government shut down and no one noticed? This, of course, has been a conservative dream since 1995. What, indeed, would happen if there was no continuing resolution to keep the federal government running?

Because Bill Clinton viewed every presidential action as a means to more power, he chose a process for shutting down the federal government most calculated to cause alarm. Those national treasures, like Yellowstone National Park or Mount Rushmore, which cost about one nanosecond of the federal government's budget year, were naturally closed first.

President Bush should take a different tact. The vast majority of federal services that people actually want depend upon user fees. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, largely supports itself out of the sale of stamps, etc. It is unaffected by a government shutdown. National parks and monuments also often have fees which visitors pay and which help pay for the operation of these areas. Some government services would not be affected by a federal budgetary shutdown.

The user fee approach to federal operations is an excellent model - a naturally self-regulating and market driven approach - and the President could use the opportunity created by attention focused on federal operations to ask that any budget agreement make as many of these operations independent of tax revenues and funded instead completely by user fees as possible.

Still, there is that nasty business about shutting down the Washington Monument and other important civic symbols. What could the President do about those operations which currently require appropriations? How about ask for volunteers? The President, after all, is the Chief Executive of the United States. He is constitutionally empowered to execute the laws, and although Congress can determine those laws and provide the funds to carry out the execution of those laws, the President - not Congress - determines how the federal government should operate.

If he begins to deputize volunteers, does anyone really think that there would be plenty of senior citizens, students looking for internships, civic minded housewives, and the like to keep our major symbolic institutions operating? Many people would pay for the privilege of giving visitors a tour of Monticello or Mount Rushmore. The quick hurts to public sentiment that Bill Clinton deliberately inflicted can be deferred indefinitely by public spirted Americans.

But why stop there? What about all those bureaus, offices, administrations, commissions, and other nameless and faceless organizations that help us order our lives correctly? Most of these operations are treadmills to oblivion: no one would ever notice if the "work" stopped. But the President should take no chances - he should also deputize citizens to do the work these bureaucrats had done before. Organizations like SCORE have a wealth of executive ability in the private sector from retired Americans. See if deputized members could begin doing the paperwork the federal government generates. Perhaps, after a couple of months of this, retired executives could provide the President with a report on workflow and duplication that could be used to reduce the costs of government.

The President also could delegate the work done by federal bureaucrats to state government employees. The participating state would have to agree to absorb the costs of the state employees' salaries, but the reality is that giving state employees in various programs the right to act as federal employees would reduce, not increase, their work. Another sweet feature of devolving federal work to state government employees is that states which did not wish to participate could explain any disruption of services to the voters of that state.

Perhaps the President could ask private corporations to "loan" experts to the American people, and so allow these companies to help our nation by paying the salaries of their employees who are working to plug gaps in the federal government. When America has actually confronted true emergencies, volunteers have made the difference. After Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of young men volunteered to serve their country. When natural disasters hit communities, the instinct to help provides very fast and efficient responses.

Ronald Reagan wisely said that the restoration of the Statute of Liberty be done entirely with private monies. The American people routinely volunteer and donate money to charities. Would they not respond equally to helping do those government actions that are really important?

Perhaps the President could even direct the Secretary of the Treasury to consider work provided to the federal government by willing hands as a tax deductible contribution. This would give a practical tax cut to those who were willing to fill in for federal employees. Once the Constitution is read as it is written, the options available to the President - who in the early days of the American Republic had very few helpers - are numerous.

The vast waste, the endless mountains of pork, would soon become apparent to all but the most narrow leftist. The nation would see what a lousy deal we are getting for our "investment" in the myriad federal programs. Rather than try to end the budge impasse, the President could use each happy, blissful day of private citizens operating the federal government to press for more of what he wants. And each day all those people sucking on the federal teat - those most loyal Democrats - will be screaming at Daschle and Gephardt to cut some deal, any deal, with Bush.

What about national defense? Well, thanks to the two prior Republican presidents, America has a cushion of several years before we must build up our defenses to keep the world safe. Those already in the military serve at the direction of the Commander in Chief regardless of federal budgetary issues.

No budget shutdown will last very long, and if necessary the President can take extraordinary action to protect national security. The Revolutionary War and Civil War were both largely funded by promises of American leaders to honor debts made in times of trouble. If the President does what he must do to preserve peace and freedom, even including running the printing presses that make money, the American public will understand.

Besides, our allies overseas have a compelling interest in preserving world peace. Grumbling and angry perhaps, nations like France, Britain, Japan, Germany, and Italy will do what must be done to prevent world war or lunges by maniacs for a few months. We tend to forget that France and Britain, like America, have arsenals of nuclear weapons as well as conventional forces. And should someone like Saddam Hussein test America, the President can insist that at least the national defense budget be approved, with vast popular support for that and deadly political risks for any Democrat who opposes protecting us from international monsters.

The long term benefits to national defense of a Republican budgetary victory will be obvious. The President can insist that missile defense, military pay, and high-tech procurement adequate to keep us safe for a long time be critical to any agreement that returns the operation of the federal government to well paid bureaucrats.

We conservatives have an interest in racheting down the side of the federal government, privatizing all that can be done without tax dollars, and devolving as many functions as possible to states. A gutsy President Bush can use the federal budget process to make that happen. In fact, the credible threat would by itself almost certainly make Democrats cave in to his wishes. And all of us would engage in that rarest form of modern political punditry: reading the Constitution.

Bruce Walker is a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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