Shutdown Highlights Basic Fact: Most of Government is ‘Non-Essential’

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Susan Walsh / AP

Despite signs stating that the national parks are closed, people visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 2, 2013.

After learning that 95 percent of Department of Education employees were deemed “non-essential” during the government shutdown and furloughed, I’m still wondering: Is that all?

Since its creation as a cabinet-level agency in 1979 and spending billions of dollars every year since, test scores for high-school seniors have either declined slightly or remained flat at best, suggesting perhaps still more fat to trim. I’m confident that we could get the same results with fewer people. It’s called productivity, people!

The shutdown may have started over a hare-brained attempt by Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to delay and/or defund President Obama’s signature health-care reform (it is sure to fail because Obamacare’s implementation is not contingent on passing a federal spending plan).

Nevertheless, the shutdown provides the country with a perfect moment to ask why a federal government whose spending habits are an insult to drunken sailors everywhere is paying above-market compensation to hundreds of thousands of “non-essential” workers.

(MORE: What’s a Furlough?: TIME Explains Government Shutdown Buzzwords)

The Department of Education is far from the only federal agency where massive numbers of take-them-or-leave-them employees hang their hats. According to Government Executive magazine’s incomplete tally, 90 percent or more of the staff at the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Securities and Exchange Committee, and the Departments of Treasury and Housing and Urban Development are considered “non-essential.” And let’s get real: When the Department of Commerce claims that a relatively tiny 85 percent of its workers are “non-essential,” we know we’re being played. Conversely, anyone who has ever passed through a airport checkpoint in the past decade will find it hard to keep a straight face when the Department of Homeland Security – home to 56,000 Transportation Security Administration workers – says just 14 percent of its crew is non-essential. Overall, 80 percent of federal employees will stay on the clock during the shutdown. It turns out that the feds can’t even do shutdowns very efficiently.

According to the Office of Personnel Management (10 percent “non-essential” workers, by the way), total federal employment across all branches of government peaked in 1968. While current levels are down from that all-time high, it’s also true that the 21st century has seen what USA Today has called “years of explosive growth.” Excluding military personnel and postal employees, the federal workforce swelled by about 300,000 over the last decade and now stands at around 2.7 million. And although Barack Obama has called for more government workers in his various budget plans (none of which passed, even when his party ran both houses of Congress) most of the increase came under George W. Bush, who was ostensibly a conservative Republican.

Which suggests the surfeit of non-essential federal employees is a bipartisan problem requiring a bipartisan plan to print up pink slips as if they were dollar bills. But good luck with that. Sen. Ted Cruz – the very person who engineered the shutdown – is busy now redefining exactly what counts as an essential function of government. “We ought to fund vital priorities,” Cruz told the Salt Lake Tribune on Monday. “We should reopen the national parks today; we should fund the [Department of Veterans Affair] today.”

So a guy who defines himself unapologetically and unambiguously as “a fan of limited government…a fiscal conservative and economic conservative” places national parks on the same priority level as caring for the people who served in America’s military. This way madness – or at least unsustainable levels of spending, deficits, and debt – lies.

If we wanted to take the opportunity afforded by the shutdown to question the size, scope, and spending of the federal government, we could start by asking why the 397 national parks, 582 natural landmarks, and 2,461 historical landmarks overseen by the U.S. Park Service aren’t operated instead by state and local governments or nonprofit trusts. Indeed, despite an annual budget north of $2.75 billion plus revenue raised by user fees, there are billions of dollars of backlogged maintenance and upkeep that everyone knows will never get completed.

(MORE: Obama Releases Message to Military As Shutdown Begins)

But maybe Sen. Cruz’s split personality – Shut the government down! Reopen the national parks today! – simply reflects the war within us all. According to recent polls, 76 percent of Americans agree that the federal government spends too much money and 70 percent are against raising the debt ceiling (which limits the amount of money the government can borrow). And yet, the red ink flows like champagne on IRS team-building junkets, with government consistently spending far more each year than it raises in revenue.

Even when we send “anarchists” (to use Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s epithet for Tea Party Republicans) to Washington, they end up ratifying a status quo that will eventually swallow the entire economy. If and when we start handing out pink slips to federal workers, we would do well to start with the elected officials we send to D.C. and then work our way down to less-exalted though equally non-essential employees.

MORE: Cover Story: It’s Only Going to Get Worse in Washington

225 comments
Nowelfarebabies
Nowelfarebabies

I would bet more than half of those furloughed are not essential, and we just gave them an additional paid vacation with benefits.  I guess now that they are back at work, I will be getting the flood of gov't employees  phone shopping for real estate on work time, as is usual.   No wonder you can't get anyone on the phone.    The gov't work force is the biggest welfare queen and the only ones that like it are those that get to participate.

MarchM
MarchM

First, the correct term is EXCEPTED and EXEMPTED, not essential vs. non-essential. Furloughed employees are those NOT EXCEPTED or NOT EXEMPTED.

You could be essential but still furloughed!

You could also be non-essential but still working/not furloughed.

What determines if you are furloughed is not if you are essential or non-essential, it is whether your budget has already been funded (i.e., EXCEPTED or EXEMPTED from Congressional appropriation) from a source not WAITING FOR CONGRESSIONAL approval.

Furlough status is SOLELY based on whether you are waiting for CONGRESS to do their jobs.

Don't confuse that with essential or non-essential. You might end up keeping some folks who were furloughed but non-essential, or losing some folks who were essential but furloughed because CONGRESS did NOT PASS a budget!

You could be essential but still furloughed!

You could also be non-essential but still working/not furloughed.

jdyer2
jdyer2

It truly is a bizarro world we live in where the essential employees are asked to come in and work and the 'non'-essential' are asked to stay home and get paid for it. 

MarchM
MarchM

@jdyer2 What determines if you are furloughed is not if you are essential or non-essential, it is whether your budget has already been funded (i.e., EXCEPTED or EXEMPTED from Congressional appropriation) from a source not WAITING FOR CONGRESSIONAL approval.

Furlough status is SOLELY based on whether you are waiting for CONGRESS to do their jobs.

Don't confuse that with essential or non-essential. You might end up keeping some folks who were furloughed but non-essential, or losing some folks who were essential but furloughed because CONGRESS did NOT PASS a budget!

You could be essential but still furloughed!

You could also be non-essential but still working/not furloughed.

JanetLeClainche
JanetLeClainche

The shutdown only applies to those parts of the budget done through the appropriations process - hence funding of government agencies. It does NOT apply to self funding entities such as passports, the Post Office, etc.  It doesn't apply to the military, That gets special treatment.  it doesn't apply to programs like Social Security, Medicare...and Obamacare which are funded through the revenues they collect.  These are not part of appropriations either.  So only 17% percent of the government is REALLY shut down because all these non-budget appropriations entities aren't affected.  So that means National Parks, FDA, CDC, Food Inspectors, Dept of Education, Commerce, FEMA, etc etc.  Not a big part of government in the big picture.  Of course if we don't raise the debt ceiling EVERYTHING could be shut down!

aztecian
aztecian

at this point in time we need more programs and benefits not less.  new jobs are created through these programs which in turn stimulate the economy.

richard40
richard40

A leftist myth, that any gov spending creates jobs.  In reality any gov spending must be paid for by the private sector, and that money not spent in the private sector costs jobs.  The only gov spending which helps jobs is infrastructure so critical that the gov spending there is more effective than similar private sector spending, a very rare event.  If the gov spending is not more effective than the same private sector spending, the usual case, then that spending loses jobs, rather than creating them.

aztecian
aztecian

@richard40 you have a very simplistic view of money.  it much more complicated than your typical right winger simplification.  govt needs to be spending more and creating more debt to in order  to push economic engine through the recession that was created by w. bush and the winger-baggers.

dave8
dave8

@aztecian @richard40 You're spouting standard Keynesian BS.  Guess what, we tried stimulus, in the amount Keynes himself would have calculated.  No multiplier, no recovery, and worst of all, no jobs.  Great for Wall Street and the 1% though.  Somehow, I don't think that's what you want though.

I could ask you to explain how the above view is simplistic and wrong, as your comment is  uh, simplistic (and wrong), but  instead, how about you tell me all about how, in spite of reality, we *haven't* already been spend spend spending, and how, somehow, more of the same (which is a recycled Bush, Reagan, Nixon, et al policy) is supposed to help.

One more: Clinton spent a lot less than Bush, while he could have done more, it worked out well enough.  George "Deficits don't matter" Bush spent a bunch, didn't work out.  Obama is spending even more than Bush... you do the math.

liquidaim
liquidaim

Hello Nick.  1 week does not a trend make for determining the purpose of various departments.  Sure there is some fat to be trimmed, but a well reasoned approach is better than taking a hammer and breaking the system.  Let's keep the government in Shutdown mode for 1 year and we'll see if you still have the same opinion.  

In my opinion, the problem isn't the size of government, the problem lies with why people want to be in government.  look there and start cutting as needed.  working for the government should be for people similar to ones who work at non-profits.  Do it because you love it, not because you can make money or gain influence and be popular.  All that can be adequately achieved in the private sector.

richard40
richard40

The supply of the kind of people you just described, real public servants, is pretty rare, and many of them are no better because they tend to have crazy idealogies.  The very fact that honest non idealogical public servants are so rare is a good reason for limiting gov, to ensure that limited supply is never exceeded.

MattHill
MattHill

Gee Nick, how 'bout that military budget that is 670% larger then the next largest country's budget; you think there might be some waste there amigo?

richard40
richard40

Probably.  I will agree to make some cuts to defense if you agree to similar cuts to everythig else, is it a deal.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@MattHill The big waste is anything to do with NASA and the space program. And DOD contractors ripping the defense dept off. 

AKSpaceMan
AKSpaceMan

Clearly, this writer has no idea what "nonessential" means in this context; :"essential" means their job has to do with the IMMEDIATE safety of our citizens.  Now do you see the difference between TSA and Dept. of Commerce?  How about this.  Let's get rid of the EPA.  They are nonessential, after all.  What a little punk like you doesn't remember is that once upon a time, in the 1960's, our Great Lakes actually caught on fire from oil and pollution.  DDT was spread on the land, and osprey and eagles disappeared.  Our air was foul, and carcinogens were pumped into our ground water, giving cancer to our children.  None of this will happen immediately, but sure, let's get rid of the EPA so your taxes are $20 less per year.  I'll tell you what is nonessential; writers like you with no end of stupid.

j45ashton
j45ashton

According to the Huffington Post the following GOP congressmen have indicated that they would vote for a clean CR.  More than enough to carry.  This implies John Boehner is lying.  Just to prove his integrity & that he can be trusted, why doesn't he take a vote on a clean CR:

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa)

Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.)

Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J)

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.)

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa)

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y)

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif

Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa)

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.)  

Rep. Scott Rigell (R)  

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y)

Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va

Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.):  

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.):  

Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho

Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.):  

Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y

Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill

Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark 


richard40
richard40

Real reliable source, that huffington post.  When I see the same list on one of my sites, i will beleive it.

j45ashton
j45ashton

@richard40 Well, if your friend John Boehner allows a democratic vote on a clean CR we will know.  Since you're interested & in his party, please write him to allow the vote & assure him he has nothing to fear. 

richard40
richard40

@j45ashton If Reid allows votes on the small appropriations bill that have passed the house, bills with appropriations for programs with bipartisan support, then I will call on Boehner to allow a vote on the Reid CR.

j45ashton
j45ashton

@richard40 @j45ashton You might want to check this link out: http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/vote_menu_113_1.htm

There have been several  votes in the Senate on junk that's come over from the House and the votes were 54-46 to table them...which means they go to committee for discussion...which in this case means they die.  So the Democrats do take votes on what the GOP wants to do.  I don't see the House GOP doing the same.

 I see you qualified your response to just the 'small appropriations'. All a part of the nonsensical political PR game the GOP is playing.  Has nothing to do with helping the country.

j45ashton
j45ashton

Very simple.  Everything that doesn't affect Nick Gillespie is non-essential.


reallife
reallife

How did this article get published in Pravda?

Might be the token common sense piece of the month...

Clap, clap, clap

YesterdaysWine
YesterdaysWine

And of course, the complexity of just Gillespie's opening thought is what? Like a meal worm's analysis? It's never dawned on the baboon that without the Dept Of Education test scores would be even deeper in the crapper. Or, it hasn't dawned on him that a huge percentage of the department's budget goes to special needs children. Or to towns so small they otherwise wouldn't have schools. Or inner city's with serious needs beyond the smarmy white, middle class view of how things actually get done. 

Plus the fact, he doesn't seem to understand what the term "debt limit" actually means. But misinformation has always served extremists from the time information could be passed along in a relatively quick, mass fashion. Hello? Raising the debt limit means Congress agrees to pay for things its already passed. The budget affects the future. How foolish and careless can a writer be? 

Sure, dismantle everything. return to what Hobbes called the war of all against all. The right wing and especially libertarians haven't read about the social contract as theorized, practiced and enhanced through the last 3 centuries of human history. 

This is the same undereducated crowd that believes a government budget is like a household budget. It's the same gang that wants children to starve and people to go without medicine, housing, clothing and other basics. This is the same crowd that believes in an Earth that is 5,000 years old and that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. The same crowd that wants to have its male members practically live inside a woman's uterus so the can curtail her choices about her bodies at their discretion. This is the same crowd that believes pollution is a good thing and that it has no consequences. And who want to dismantle health, safety and pharmaceutical safeguards. Not to mention things like emergency response actions. Let's get this straight, there will be nothing worth protecting and defending, but they want an enormous military to stand strong against anyone who disagrees with us but citizens here lose their basic human rights. 

Make no mistake. This is a dangerous, anti-American crowd. 

This is the crowd that has invented the idea that a free-for-all is an actual society. They believe in nothing. At the root they are nihilists who despise other human beings and love themselves in the most narcissistic way. 



dave8
dave8

@YesterdaysWine "It's never dawned on the baboon that without the Dept Of Education test scores would be even deeper in the crapper. Or, it hasn't dawned on him that a huge percentage of the department's budget goes to special needs children. Or to towns so small they otherwise wouldn't have schools. Or inner city's with serious needs beyond the smarmy white, middle class view of how things actually get done."

Cite needed on test scores.  For the rest, are intentions all that matter, or do you actually care about results?  Is the leviathan federal government the best way to address these with it's one-size-fits all solutions?  Personally, I don't think throwing money at a problem is the best approach.  Your above paragraph is simple question begging.

"Sure, dismantle everything."

Gillespie wasn't suggesting that, don't be dramatic.  Also, I'm pretty sure libertarians are very well versed in social contract theory.  Are you suggesting that anyone that is, automatically has to agree with it?  Lol.  So let's start out with the obvious: where is the voluntary offer, acceptance, and consideration of said contract?  Supposing you can satisfy me on that question, tell me how it's still a contract when politicians, theorists, etc, can change the terms?

"This is the same undereducated crowd that believes a government budget is like a household budget."

It was an analogy, you do understand how those work right?  You also understand that *every* analogy has it's limitations?  That being said, your disagreement towards it is very telling.  Do you honestly think the government can just keep on going with the same debt/deficits with no ill effects?  If not, I'd like to hear a realistic proposal.

"It's the same gang that wants children to starve and people to go without medicine, housing, clothing and other basics."

No.  Is government the only entity capable of charity?  I'm pretty sure I enjoy helping people with my own two hands.  Lol, more question begging.

"This is the same crowd that believes in an Earth that is 5,000 years old and that humans co-existed with dinosaurs. The same crowd that wants to have its male members practically live inside a woman's uterus so the can curtail her choices about her bodies at their discretion."

No, that would be the religious right.  Your ignorance of libertarianism is showing.

"This is the same crowd that believes pollution is a good thing and that it has no consequences."

No.  Plenty of theory on that one.  Once again, your ignorance is showing.

"And who want to dismantle health, safety and pharmaceutical safeguards. Not to mention things like emergency response actions."

No, they would just be handled privately.  Once again, government isn't the only entity capable of providing such services.  Oh, and since you are begging the question, yet again, do you have any evidence that, say, the benefits of the FDA outweigh the impediments it places on the development of life saving treatments?

"[T]hey want an enormous military"

No, just no.  This is the clincher, you just don't know much of anything about libertarianism.

"This is the crowd that has invented the idea that a free-for-all is an actual society. They believe in nothing. At the root they are nihilists who despise other human beings and love themselves in the most narcissistic way."

Gee, Jefferson left us with a free-for-all society?  Huh.  Besides that, your first sentence is demonstrably false as libertarianism traces it's roots, beyond Thomas Jefferson, to John Locke, Adam Smith, and a host of others, none of whom "invented" that.   As for your last sentence, I'm going to go with simple projection.

swagger
swagger

simply a fabulous idea to put more people out of work during a recession but that's the right wing extremist dream to destroy the government then reshape what's left by allowing the further corporate takeover of america.

littleredtop
littleredtop

What does the Department of Education actually do?   Why do we even need a Federal Department of Education when each state, county and city has their own?  How did we ever get by until 1979 without a Federal Department of Education and wasn't that about when the education process went completely sour and started producing absolute idiots? 

YesterdaysWine
YesterdaysWine

@littleredtop Why don't you go study up on what it does instead of asking other people to do your homework for you? Also, with your walnut-sized brain, how about trying to figure out that declining parental involvement is what has caused the decline in school achievement. Is that really all that hard to figure out? Have you ever considered that without government involvement the state of education would be even worse? Maybe the good old days were good for you and your people. What in God's name do you think it was like for little children being raised in rural Appalachia or Watts? 

littleredtop
littleredtop

@YesterdaysWine @littleredtop  Being raised in rural Appalachia or Watts is very little different today than it was prior to establishment of the DOE.  If you had done due diligence prior to allowing your pea size brain run wild you would know that.  Also, parental involvement in the education process has never been measured so to state that there has been a decline is purely speculative.  

YesterdaysWine
YesterdaysWine

@littleredtop @YesterdaysWine Once again, your blind beliefs are turning you senseless. First, thousands of studies have been done about parental involvement in children's educational attainment. The child of parents, for instance, who are read to for 30 minutes per day from birth to age 5 show significant advancement over those children who aren't. Yet, the number of parents who read to their pre-school children has been on a steep decline for 40 years. So, go look it up. If your brain can handle it. That is, after you solve the great riddle of what the Dept of Education actually does. But yu lazy right wingers don't care about facts. You jus' gawn n make 'em up after brewin' your moonshine. You have the internet, why not read some real stuff. You're persuading no one of anything. 

dave8
dave8

@YesterdaysWine @littleredtop "Have you ever considered that without government involvement the state of education would be even worse?"

Have you considered that you should have evidence of this *before* forcibly taking my money to pay for it?