When government is too small
On a damp Friday morning, 11 days into the government shutdown, a few dozen truckers took to the Capital Beltway to tell lawmakers they were angry.
They were protesting big government. Yet opinion polls showed that Americans opposed the government shutdown and were hurting because of it. At that moment, according to polls, nearly one in three Americans already felt personally affected not by too much government, but by too little - by the sudden freeze in critical services.
To be completely accurate, the entire federal government hadn't shut down. Paychecks kept flowing to lawmakers and the plush House gym with its heated pool and paddleball courts remained open. That's because "essential" services continued, even as "nonessential" ones ceased.
It turned out that whether services were deemed essential or not was a reflection of our lawmakers' values.
Prioritized above all else were "national security" activities, deemed essential under the banner of "protecting life and property." Surveillance at the National Security Agency, for instance, continued uninterrupted.
Indeed, only for a brief moment did the shutdown reduce the gusher of taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon's coffers. After a couple days of furloughs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 90 percent of his civilian workforce could resume work.
This from the crew that, according to Foreign Policy, went on a $5 billion spending spree on the eve of the shutdown to exhaust any remaining cash from the closing fiscal year. Those last-minute Pentagon dollars paid for spy satellites, drones, and infrared cameras, along with a $9 million sparkling new gym for the Air Force Academy, replete with a CrossFit space and a "television studio."
Then there were the nonessential activities.
In Arkansas, funding for infant formula to feed 2,000 at-risk newborn babies was in jeopardy, as were 85,000 meals for children in that state. Nutrition for low-income kids was deemed nonessential even though one in four American kids lack consistent access to nutritious food, and research makes clear that improper nutrition stunts brain architecture in the young, forever affecting their ability to learn and interact socially.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wasn't accepting new patients because of the shut down. Typically, 200 new patients arrive every week for experimental treatment. On average around 30 of them are children, 10 of whom have cancer.
Cancer, in fact, is the leading cause of death among children ages one to 14. But treatment for kids with cancer didn't qualify as essential during the shutdown. Somehow, it didn't make the cut as "protecting life and property."
Let this be the last time a group of tea-partying truckers are the ones protesting the loudest over the dimensions of our government. Indeed, every American should have been in the streets when our elected officials labeled cancer care for children as "nonessential."
And let this be the last time we as a nation let our elected officials cut nutrition assistance for vulnerable children at the same moment that they protect their own paychecks, Pentagon pork, and cavernous tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporations.
How can we fix this abysmal state of affairs?
We need a long-haul strategy - the unsexy yet necessary systemic change that will ensure that our government actually represents the people. There's so much work to be done: Gerrymandered district lines must be redrawn fairly. We must get the big money out of political campaigns so that we the people may elect dedicated leaders instead of masters of campaign finance.
And then we must build - person by person - an electorate that's informed enough about how our government is supposed to work to fulfill its responsibility in this democracy. Together, we can ensure that our leaders care about the best interests of all Americans.
Jo Comerford is executive director of National Priorities Project and co-author of the book A People's Guide to the Federal Budget.