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The Shutdown and the Case for Federal Government

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The government shutdown began when House Republicans declared that the price of keeping the government open would be either a repeal or delay of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. It has been clear for several years that opponents of the law see Obamacare as an unprecedented expansion of government power. They made this argument in Congress, where the legislation eventually passed. They made this argument in the Supreme Court -- where five justices agreed that the individual mandate, which requires people without insurance to either buy private insurance or pay a tax was, indeed, unprecedented, but one of those five, Chief Justice Roberts, voted with four others to uphold the law. They made this argument during the 2012 presidential campaign, and their candidate, Mitt Romney, lost. They made this argument in the lead up to the government shutdown.

Now that the shutdown has begun, some House Republicans have expanded the bounds of their critique. Their focus now is the role of the federal government itself. House Republicans have put forward piecemeal legislation that would re-open shuttered agencies of the federal government one by one. This is a revealing strategy. It shows that, for some House Republicans, the real goal is to permanently strip away some pieces of the federal government. As Rep. Martin Stutzman (R-IN) put it, the piecemeal approach would allow them to "start picking off those priorities that are important. The IRS [is] last on the list. The EPA [is] right above it."

On the surface, this is a clever strategy. If one is philosophically opposed to the size of the federal government, why not make defenders of the government justify the need for each agency, one at a time? That puts the burden of proof on the pro-government side to justify programs and agencies that may be unpopular -- who likes the IRS, after all? And, undoubtedly, a review of the entire federal government would find wasteful or unnecessary programs. Any large organization has inefficiencies, and the federal government, with more than 2.5 million employees and a $3.5 trillion budget, surely has its share.

However, by raising the fundamental question of what the federal government should look like, House Republicans have created an opening for their political opponents. If the role of government is open for consideration, that can cut both ways. Those who believe government can be a force for good can seize the initiative. They could point out gaps in the existing structure, problems government could be addressing but currently does not. For example, the American Society of Civil Engineers 2013 Report Card on America's Infrastructure gave the U.S. a D+. The ASCE estimates that an investment of $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020 in order to make sure that necessary improvements are made so that roads, bridges, levees, the electrical grid and drinking water supplies are functional and safe to use. No private individual or entity has the resources or incentive to take this action. There are other big problems that similarly cannot be solved without a national effort -- climate change, defending the nation against terrorism, the threat of epidemic diseases, mass unemployment and, of course, health care, to name a few.

Republicans are establishing an identity as the anti-government party, as one business leader recently put it. This calls to mind Ronald Reagan's famous declaration that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." President Reagan was talking specifically about the economy, but his assertion has been applied more and more broadly by his political heirs. The anti-government crowd has a point: too much government can be a problem and it can be dangerous. There can be waste, mismanagement, even oppressiveness in government. But they are missing another point. While it can be dangerous for government to be too large or have too much power, it can also be dangerous when government does not have enough power. The Framers of the Constitution understood this problem all too well. The Articles of Confederation failed because it did not give the federal government enough power to deal with national problems. American revolutionaries, having taken up arms against an overbearing central government, worried about giving government too much power. But they overlooked the danger of going too far and creating a federal government that was dangerously weak. As a consequence, the Constitution was designed to balance two competing concerns: limiting the power of government while also making sure the federal government had enough power to deal with national problems. Today's anti-government Republicans are ignoring the second part of the equation. It's time to remind them that there is a reason why we have a federal government.