Shutdown not simple, not cheap Q&A: It's the taxpayer who foots the bill for the inability of Congress and the White House to come to an agreement on funding the national budget

Sun Journal

The Government Shutdown

November 15, 1995

For lack of money, the federal government yesterday placed itself in mothballs.

Hundreds of thousands of workers deemed "nonessential" were sent home, and offices were closed, because Congress (controlled by Republicans) and the White House (home of a Democrat) failed to reach a compromise about federal spending.

Home is where much of the work force will stay, until the pressures of politics and the inconveniences of a government working at half-speed compel the two sides to set aside some of their differences.

But a shutdown for even half a day can affect almost everyone, as explained by Carl Cannon of The Sun's national staff.

The shutdown began yesterday. How long is it going to last?

These crises have lasted no more than a day or two in the past, but this one could go on considerably longer.

The protagonists -- President Clinton in the White House and Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole in Congress -- do not seem to trust one another, which makes compromise more difficult. Plus, Congress wants to spend less money than the president, which gives Congress more leverage since it is Congress that controls the purse strings.

If Mr. Clinton decides against accepting the Republicans' terms, Congress could in theory decide to run a scaled-down government all year.

What effects does the shutdown have on the public?

Many services will temporarily be cut off. New Social Security applications will not be processed. Nor will new claims for veterans benefits. Passport offices will be closed, as will national parks and museums. Nonmilitary agencies will be slower to respond to queries and requests from the public.

But law enforcement agencies will operate as usual. So will the Department of Agriculture, since its budget was one of two approved by the president before the showdown with Congress.

Are there particular impacts in Maryland?

If the stalemate continues, the effects here could be severe. More than one in 10 federal workers lives in Maryland, and for now many of them will not be paid.

OK, a government shutdown isn't good news. But doesn't sending home 800,000 workers save taxpayers some money?

No. The shutdown will not save money and will probably end up costing the federal government -- and taxpayers -- even more.

How can that be?

There have been four of these shutdowns since 1981; each time, Congress has agreed to grant back pay to everyone sent home. So there are no savings. There are extra costs from the effort required to plan a shutdown, and then from a drop in productivity even when workers return. A 1991 Government Accounting Office report estimated that a three-day shutdown could cost $400 million.

Do presidential politics have anything to do with this?

No doubt about it.

Mr. Clinton's advisers say that it is crucial for the president's re-election chances that he be seen as staking out some concrete principles -- and holding fast to them. Likewise, Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, must not be seen as too quick to make a deal. Compromise is a dirty word among some of his rivals in the Republican presidential primaries.

Then again, Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton may be tempted to compromise because of the press of other business.

Mr. Dole is supposed to be in Florida on Friday competing with other Republican presidential candidates in a straw vote this weekend. Mr. Clinton had to scale back travel plans to a quick weekend jaunt -- to Japan and back.

Does the government have enough money to pay interest on its bonds?

For the foreseeable future, there's enough money for that, because neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to want to limit the government's ability to borrow, or to pay interest on the money it has borrowed. And although it is a matter related to the budget, it can be handled separately.

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin has considerable leeway in moving money around and dipping into various government "trust funds" to pay the government's obligations -- including a $25 billion interest payment due today. He has said he could keep things running indefinitely.

Let's go back to the budget. President Clinton says he sent Congress a balanced budget and that Congress refused to enact it. Is that true?

Reality is more complicated.

During the 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton said he would balance the budget in five years, and yesterday he called a balanced budget his prime goal. But in between, he changed course. Then, he returned almost to his original goal. He proposed balancing the budget, in 10 years instead of five. But the Congressional Budget Office reported that the White House proposal would not actually work.

No Democrat would even sponsor the budget proposal. When a Senate Republican did, it was defeated on a vote of 96-0.

But public opinion surveys show that the public is less trusting of Congress than the president on budget matters. Why is that?

Although they claim a mandate for balancing the budget in seven years -- it was in their "Contract with America" -- Republicans are late in preparing a full-scale budget. Instead, they sent to the White House emergency spending measures that included unrelated measures, such as opening more federal lands to oil drilling.

Plus, the Democrats have convinced some voters that the Republicans would direct tax breaks only to the well-to-do. The GOP budget plan does call for lowering capital gains taxes, which would disproportionately benefit the well-to-do, and curtailing tax credits for the working poor.

Does Medicare play a role in the budget debate?

A very large one. President Clinton said he vetoed the Republican's short-term budget legislation in part because it would have bound him to Medicare changes he opposes. The Republicans propose somewhat higher Medicare premiums -- larger increases than Democrats say are necessary.

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