×

Don't fall for the shutdown scam — most of the U.S. government will keep on running just fine

  • Another government shutdown could happen as soon as Friday.
  • But 'shutdown' is an inaccurate and hyperbolic phrase to describe reality.
  • The political class uses shutdown threats as one part of a process to mislead and frighten the public into accepting runaway spending.
A person takes cover under an umbrella while snapping a photo of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
Getty Images
A person takes cover under an umbrella while snapping a photo of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

America's $20.5 trillion national debt didn't just create itself. It's been sowed, cultivated, and put on steroids by a patented formula that guarantees it keeps growing — and the political class keeps getting what it wants.

But perhaps there's no tool that's more sinister and disingenuous, and used by leaders of both parties, than what's become the semi-annual scare tactic known as the "government shutdown."

You have to put quotes around the term because the government does not shut down. About 85 percent of it keeps functioning, especially the military and homeland security, air traffic control, VA hospitals, FBI, DEA, and ATF enforcement and criminal investigations, oversight of food and drug safety, nuclear safety, and even the IRS. Social Security and Medicare payments continue as well.

For sure, some services are put on hold. Around 400,000 federal workers were furloughed during the last shutdown in 2013 with another 1.2 million who worked but were paid late. Of course, even those furloughed workers eventually received their full salaries. Some of them even received overtime pay.

In other words, shutdowns for federal workers are more like an unplanned paid vacation.

Others aren't so lucky. Government contractors endure delays in their payments and don't get any bonuses for waiting. Some mortgage applications can be delayed. People who need passports or want to visit national parks are out of luck.

No one should just brush off those inconveniences. Yet for the most part, calling a shutdown a "shutdown" is a major stretch of the imagination.

But the term fits right into the bipartisan scam Washington has been running for years. Without scare and hurry-up tactics, none of our huge debt and sprawling federal government would be possible.

"It's like out of control spending has a superhero bodyguard and its name is 'government shutdown.'" -Jake Novak

The con game works like this: The federal government keeps expanding and expanding. New departments and spending programs are launched with regularity. But somehow they immediately become sacred cows as if they had existed since 1776.

Deficits keep rising even though incoming revenues break record after record. But we're told the only reasonable way to cut the debt is increase revenues. Whenever anyone questions the need or oversight for new spending, the word "emergency" is slapped onto it, so reasonable caution — and the people asking for it — are disregarded and even demonized.

The government shutdown scam wraps all of the above elements into one stinky package. First, it uses the hyperbolic and 85 percent inaccurate "shutdown" title. Second, it always comes with fast-approaching deadlines, (this latest one is December 8th), that discourage any fair-minded critics from asking for more scrutiny. Third, the "solution" is always connected to agreeing to more spending, as opposed to an across-the-board spending cut of any kind.

It's like out of control spending has a superhero bodyguard and its name is "government shutdown."

But there's one more thing that makes government shutdown battles a particularly egregious example of D.C. dishonesty. That is, they're usually not really about spending at all. They have historically grown out of debates over partisan wedge issues including abortion, oil drilling, and civil rights.

That last shutdown in 2013 was about Obamacare. This time, the face-off is more and more about a dispute on immigration. But the Constitution connects almost every government policy to the Congressional power of the purse. So it's easy for political opportunists to take the budget and use it as a hostage whenever they have enough will to do so.

When that happens, the actual issue of our exploding debts and unfunded future liabilities gets kicked down the road again by hysterical and grave sounding politicians and their enablers in most of the news media. They ensure that no matter how inconsequential "shutdowns" really are, they are perceived by the public as dire.

But try thinking back to that last shutdown when it happened from October 1 to October 17, 2013. Don't just trust your raw memories, check your emails or social media posts from that time period for help. See if they provide any evidence of your life in tatters and a nation in chaos. The bet here is that there will be no such evidence for the overwhelming majority of you.

That's where the danger really lies for the political class and business as usual in Washington. That is, this scam is in danger if more voters, and the people supposedly holding our political leaders up to scrutiny, would just look at these shutdown threats more clearly. Then, at least that very key layer of the Washington budget con game would be peeled away.

Yes, both parties are to blame. But until voters on all sides start to call baloney on the shutdown scare tactic, expect more of the hyperbole, half truths, and deflection from the real issues to continue.

The only way it ends is if Americans get a healthy and timely dose of skepticism.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.