Government is simply a word for the things we decide to do together. And if there is one lesson that the recent 16-day government shutdown taught us, it is this: there are a lot of things we Americans have decided to do, together, and people were angry when these things were taken away.
In Massachusetts, thousands of people lost their heating assistance, including many veterans and seniors -- and if the shutdown had continued, 200,000 Bay State residents could have been left out in the cold. Many of the 29,000 federal workers in the state were furloughed. Scientists were frantic when years of research was endangered. One Head Start center in Western Mass. was scheduled to get their funding on Oct. 1, which was delayed by the shutdown. Luckily, they were able to move money around to stay open, but would have likely closed, along with five other centers, had the shutdown gone on much longer.
Across the country, this all had a ripple effect -- when national parks were closed, when spending by government agencies across the country ground to a halt, when 800,000 federal workers were, in effect, furloughed, it drained $24 billion out of our economy, according to the S&P index.
This all supposedly was a fight over Obamacare, but actually it was about much, much more. The conflict centered on a fundamental question: What is the rightful place of government in our lives? During the shutdown, several competing philosophies emerged.
One philosophy, embraced by the tea party faction of the GOP, held that government has no role in our lives, save for the bare essentials (and even those were threatened by the shutdown). And they were willing to sacrifice our economy to get their way.
A second philosophy, and one that we at Massachusetts Fair Share believe in, along with most Americans, is pretty different: Let’s do all we can for an economy that works for all of us, and that gives the most kids a chance at a fair shot at a good life. And a shutdown that nearly destroys all progress toward this goal is almost antithetical to this philosophy.
Is there any question that this second approach is embraced by the majority of Americans? Consider that after the rise of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and after the tea party overran Republican leadership in the House, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 24 percent of respondents held a positive view of the GOP -- the lowest such finding in the poll’s history.
And now, government is up and running again, much to the relief of Americans who want to take their families camping in a national park or small-business owners who rely on the trickle-down effect of government spending for their livelihoods or seniors who just need to turn on the heater.
But the budget fights are not over. Government is only funded until January, and the issue of the debt ceiling will return a month later. Now is a good time for all of us to reflect on the proper role of government in our lives and our priorities as a nation, and, most importantly, how we might align these two things.
Nathan Proctor is state director, Massachusetts Fair Share.