In A Shutdown, Who Decides What's Essential?
Cushy congressional perks are worth saving, but infant formula isn't.
Prioritized above all else were, of course, "national security" activities, deemed beyond essential under the banner of "protecting life and property." Surveillance at the National Security Agency, for instance, continued, uninterrupted, though it was liberated from its obviously nonessential and, even in the best-funded of times, minimal responsibility to disclose those activities under the Freedom of Information Act. Such disclosure was judged superfluous in a shutdown era, while spying on Americans (not to speak of Brazilians, Mexicans, Europeans, Indians, and others around the planet) was deemed indispensible.
Then there was the carefully orchestrated Special Operations Forces mission in Libya to capture a terror suspect off the streets of Tripoli in broad daylight, proving that in a shutdown period, the US military wasn't about to shut off the lights. And don't forget the nighttime landing of a Navy SEAL team in Somalia in an unsuccessful attempt to capture a different terrorist target. These activities were deemed essential to national survival, even though the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack are, at the moment, estimated at around one in 20 million. Remember that number, because we'll come back to it.
Indeed, only for a brief moment did the shutdown reduce the gusher of taxpayer dollars, billions and billions of them, into the Pentagon's coffers. After a couple days in which civilian Defense Department employees were furloughed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 90% of them could resume work because they "contribute to morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members." This from the crew that, according to Foreign Policy, went on a jaw-dropping, morale-boosting $5 billion spending spree on the eve of the shutdown to exhaust any remaining cash from the closing fiscal year, buying spy satellites, drones, infrared cameras and, yes, a $9 million sparkling new gym for the Air Force Academy, replete with CrossFit space and a "television studio."
Then there were the nonessential activities.
In Arkansas, for instance, federal funds for infant formula to feed 2,000 at-risk newborn babies were in jeopardy, as were 85,000 meals for needy children in that state. Nutrition for low-income kids was considered nonessential even though one in four children in this country doesn't have consistent access to nutritious food, and medical research makes it clear that improper nutrition stunts brain architecture in the young, forever affecting their ability to learn and interact socially. Things got so bad that a Texas couple dug into their own reserves to keep the program running in six states.
If children in need were "furloughed," so were abused women. Across the country, domestic violence shelters struggled to provide services as federal funds were cut off. Some shelters raised spare change from their communities to keep the doors open. According to estimates, as many as six million women each year are victims of domestic violence. On average in this country, three women are murdered by an intimate partner every day.
But funding for domestic violence protection: nonessential.
Funds for early childhood education, too, were shut off. Seven thousand low-income kids from 11 states were turned away. Their "head start" was obviously less than essential, even though evidence shows that early education for at-risk children is the best way to help them catch up with their wealthier peers in cognition and adds to their odds of staying out of prison in later life.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wasn't accepting new patients because of the shutdown. 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 them didn't qualify as essential. Unlike fighting terrorism—remember the less-likely-than-being-struck-by-lightning odds of one in 20 million—treating kids with cancer didn't make the cut as "protecting life and property."
A father of two young girls in the town of Eliot, Maine, said to a National Priorities Project staffer in disbelief, "If even one kid can't get cancer treatment, isn't that enough to end the shutdown?"
Let this be the last time we find ourselves on the wrong side of that question. Because every day we as a nation allowed our lawmakers to keep the government closed was a day in which we as a people were complicit in replying "no."