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