A photo of a Federal Office Building with a "Sorry, we're closed" sign on it.

State of Disunion

What Happens When There Is No Functioning Federal Government?

The GOP has long fetishized small government, but most citizens don’t realize what they’ll be missing if some federal agencies shut down.

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“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

President Ronald Reagan

When Donald Trump campaigned to become president, he didn’t sound like a typical Republican. For one thing, he swore he would never cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security.

But the coalition that put him in office wants those cuts, because that’s how they intend to fund the tax cuts they promised their big donors. Trump was not all that popular with the Republican establishment, but they saw him as a means to that tax-cutting end.

So no matter what he has said, trust that every single one of the GOP program-cutting threats is real.


I can’t remember exactly when it became so fashionable to hate the federal government, but it certainly had something to do with the Reagan era.

The idea that free markets are the solution to everything suddenly became a legitimate philosophy, instead of something to ridicule. (Some of us never stopped ridiculing it. My advice: Run quickly and far from any adult male who believes Ayn Rand wrote the best book ever.)

In that Reagan era, free-market think tanks and libertarian publications bloomed everywhere, watered by copious donations from corporate oligarchs—who, of course, had a personal interest in the philosophy that government power should be limited. Republicans pay lip service to free markets but look closely at their legislation. It usually includes a healthy boost to corporations that, if they were a pinball machine, they would light up and say “TILT!” Because the last thing they actually want is a level playing field where they succeed on merit.

If you look, you can still spot their handiwork: on TV as “experts,” writing op-eds for national publications. Hint: You can ascribe a tax-cutting agenda to anyone affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, or the Hoover Institute, as well as billionaire Pete Peterson’s pet “Fix The Debt” organization. There are more, but those are the biggies.

Deregulation is key to their agenda, and while it’s always sold to voters as a way to boost the economy and create jobs that’s not what actually happens. It is a good way to pay off large donors and encourage them to give even bigger sums to Republicans.

It’s not really about freedom. It’s about tax cuts for the wealthy. Right-wing corporate types really resent taxes. They consider it their money, and they want to keep it. They don’t mind the things government does that benefit them; they just think they should get it for free.

Let me take a moment here to point out here that it’s not only about tax cuts, it’s also about ideology, much of which is racist and sexist and all of which is classist. A network of millionaire and billionaire donors have funded a vast structure of right-wing think tanks, publications, websites, and indoctrination programs since the 1950s that pump out free-market, anti-tax propaganda, much of it an outgrowth of the then-fringe John Birch Society. For instance, would it surprise you to know the right wing has been planning to destroy public education ever since Brown v. Board of Education, and that the ultimate goal of the charter school and voucher movement is to resegregate schools?

Powerful corporations have money. They pay lobbyists breathtaking sums to threaten, cajole, and wheedle more financial advantages out of our elected officials for the industries in which they operate. They even write the legislation! (In some cases politicians even forget to erase the name of the lobbying organization from the legislation before they propose it, making it painfully obvious. Also, see ALEC.)

When you have that situation on steroids, as we do now, ordinary people have a lot to lose—like clean air and water, or healthcare, for starters.

And Donald Trump shows every intention of delivering what the Republican establishment wants.

So many of us forget how much we get in return for our tax dollars, and the anti-government conservatives count on it. It would be easier to remember if, after you write that check to the IRS, they send you a toaster oven or a clock radio.

Despite that blindness, the federal government really does do important, productive things. Things we need—things we like! Grants to allow states to build or repair roads and bridges, additional aid to public schools, funding for the Medicaid program that allows elderly people to afford nursing home care and disabled children to go to school. Let’s not forget Medicare and Social Security, the programs that keep so many elderly people out of poverty. And if you’re working a job that doesn’t pay you enough to live, the food stamp program supplements your earnings. And don’t believe the GOP hype: The people working low-wage jobs aren’t the problem; the corporate owners who pay non-living wages and want taxpayers to supplement their greed are.

Federal agencies are created out of a perceived need — often driven by scandal and ensuing public outrage. For example, in 1906, after muckraking author Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, an expose of the Chicago meatpacking industry, the Federal Meat Inspection Act was passed. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned a report that eventually confirmed the book’s assertions. (Sinclair was a socialist, and the president wasn’t about to take his word for anything.)

In 1965, Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe At Any Speed, a book that exposed the automobile industry’s resistance to incorporating safety features in cars. It became a bestseller, and as a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was established to write and enforce safety standards.

And the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was a response to increased manufacturing and the power of the growing environmental movement, as so many new chemicals were introduced to the manufacturing process and little was known about their health effects.

And so on. But greedy politicians and their donors have been peddling a snake-oil philosophy called “running government like a business” for decades. (Every time it’s been tried, it’s been a disaster. See George W. Bush.)

Here is the difference between business and government, in a nutshell: Businesses can absorb big risks because they’re relatively sheltered from consequences. If a car manufacturer decides not to put an $11 heat shield on a new car that prevents the gas tank from exploding in a rear-end collision, for example, they have people who do the risk/benefit analysis and tell them it’s cheaper to pay off the lawsuits. They may suffer public relations fallout and temporarily depressed stock prices, but those obstacles are part of the job.

Government, on the other hand, is tasked with safety and compliance. Their job is to meet the legal and legislative requirements of the area which they oversee. It sounds old-fashioned, but they’re there to serve the public. If they don’t, taxpayers vote them out, or at least they should.

In order to do their job, though, government agencies need more than the law on their side. They need funding.

Rules Can Seem Silly—Until You Need Them

For at least 30 years, ultra-conservatives and libertarians have pushed that whole “drown government in the bathtub” philosophy, to the point where it’s now the official position of the “mainstream” Republican party. If you watch the news or listen to talk radio, or spend a lot of time around people who do, it may even begin to sound reasonable.

But is it? What does it mean for the rest of us?

●      When you go to the McDonald’s drive-through, you may not be thinking about the safety of the beef you’re eating. The United States Department of Agriculture does. They inspect food facilities all over the country.

●      If your doctor writes you a prescription, you’d like to know the side effects aren’t likely to kill you. It’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration to minimize that risk. (And by the way, the federal government funds most of drug research and development.)

●      Your 16-year-old son gets a job working at the local fast food outlet. Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules limit his exposure to dangerous items like meat slicers and hot fryers.

●      Or maybe your toddler has asthma, and thus benefits greatly from the Clean Air Act— and the Environmental Protection Agency workers who enforce it.

●      During the 2008 financial crash, one of the government programs that kept it from turning into another Great Depression was the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—which meant your personal deposits were insured.

●      The Federal Communications Commission organizes and supervises the use of public airways, including the internet. Under a Democrat, that usually tips in the favor of the consumer — and net neutrality.

●      Thanks to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, we get a heads up when extreme weather is headed our way. Despite all the GOP cries of “no one knew how bad it would be” about Hurricane Maria, they knew almost a full day ahead of time how bad it would be, and that’s thanks to NOAA. The agency also does important research into the human and economic effects of climate change. (Seems relevant.)

●      Thanks to federal safety and pollution standards, the car you drive has seat belts, airbags, safer bumpers, and is more fuel efficient.

●      On a diet? You can calculate carbs because the federal government now requires food to include nutrition information.

●      Your elderly father breaks his hip and needs care. Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, you can take some time off to be there. Medicare will cover his care and even a physical therapist. If he runs out of money and needs to enter a nursing home, Medicaid will cover it.

●      You can check your email because of the government programs that created the early computer networking software and infrastructure. (Oh, and also funded the research that led to browsers like Google.)

●      You can’t quite get together the 20 percent down payment for a house? Thanks to the FHA program, you can still get a mortgage.

●      Federally subsidized student loans and grants allow those without well-to-do parents to attend college.

It would take a book to list all the public services provided by the government. That book would also include the military, public transit, roads, education, natural resource management, NASA, international humanitarian assistance, and veterans’ benefits. These benefits are so taken for granted, they’re almost invisible.

But all good things, it seems, must come to an end. It’s the unofficial motto of the Trump administration, if not the Republican Party. And that’s another story.

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