The center of substantive policy debate has shifted to the far right. The question is not whether to cut government services, but by how much. Not whether to increase or decrease taxes, but who can decrease them more. Republican rhetoric that spending must be slashed because we are broke has carried the day, while Democrats flounder and only find the spine to defend specific government programs.
A government shutdown was averted in the final hour Friday night by a last-minute compromise between House Republicans, Senate Democrats and President Obama. The final tense negotiations came down to a matter of a few billion dollars in spending cuts and the funding of certain Democratic prerogatives, like Planned Parenthood, National Public Radio and Head Start. Lost in these squabbles was a chance for the nation's liberals to take a principled stand in favor of government.
Government can be an overwhelmingly powerful force for good. Medicare provides health care for the elderly and Social Security means that those who cannot work do not waste away on the street. Unemployment benefits mean that workers and their families have a cushion to rely on as they transition between jobs.
A government shutdown would have been enlightening, if a bit scary. The government would have stopped processing new applications for programs like food stamps and Social Security. Travelers would have been unable to obtain passports. Veterans would have had their benefits slashed. Museums, parks and monuments would have had their doors shuttered and sanitation crews in the District of Columbia would have been sent home while garbage piled up in the streets. An estimated 800,000 federal employees would have been furloughed indefinitely. In short, a government shutdown would have been devastating.
And a brief federal shutdown does not fully reveal how necessary government truly is, since so-called "essential workers" would be forced to remain on the job indefinitely, often without pay. Pondering the effects of a shutdown, one starts to realize just how many areas of life would be affected.
The air traffic controllers that guide the planes we rely on are government workers. The Amtrak trains that many Brown students ride to and from their homes in the Northeast are federally subsidized. Many of the grants that our professors need to fund their research — and often their undergraduate workers — would be in jeopardy. Federal aid to the states would be cut off, forcing the states to make even deeper spending cuts during these already hard times. Student loans would not be processed, nor would Pell grants. And let's not forget the postal service.
A government shutdown would have reminded Americans of the indispensability of government in our lives. New and potentially life-saving drugs would have had to wait for FDA approval. The people who make sure that our drinking water is safe and that our salads are not full of E. coli would have been sent home. A shutdown would have endangered lives.
It is time for liberals to stand proudly and defend government from the unwarranted assaults of Tea Partiers and political conservatives. Not only is a well-run government not the problem, it is often the best solution.
The stakes could not be higher. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., the House budget committee chairman, just released a long-term budget that would shear $6.2 trillion from the budget over the next decade by cutting spending on nearly every program, including health care for seniors and the poor. Forget the petty fight over Planned Parenthood's medical services for low-income women — the Ryan Plan would shrink discretionary spending, including defense, to a percent of gross domestic product not seen since the 1920s.
The fight over this year's budget might be over, but the fight over the future has just begun. So far, the loudest voices are those like Ryan who are pushing for the steepest cuts at the expense of those most in need.
Liberals need to press back and push the debate back to the left. The question should be by how much to increase social services. Between a public option for health care or Medicare for all. Between current levels of taxation and higher levels on the top 2 percent of earners.
The potential for a federal shutdown is a teachable moment on the efficacy of government. It plays a crucial role in the economy, in ensuring the public welfare, in progressing science and in taking care of the elderly and infirm. Without government, the trains do not run, the mail is not delivered and the planes cannot fly. Democrats can no longer afford to concede this ideological point. It is time to take our country back.
Ethan Tobias '12 is a biology concentrator from New York. He can be reached at Ethan_Tobias(at)brown.edu