While Standing for Fiscal Sanity is Laudable, Those Responsible for Fiscal Policy Need to Take a Hard Look at What is Considered “Essential” so as to Prevent Unintended, Avoidable, Adverse Consequences to Those Who Are Least Able to Weather Them Well
By Ken K. Gourdin
My commentary praising the courage of Senator Ted Cruz (R – Texas) and Senator Mike Lee (R – Utah) for being willing to stand on principle in favor of fiscal sanity despite being excoriated by many across the political spectrum should not be read as overlooking the fact that there were genuine, serious consequences to the government shutdown which extended well beyond, for example, derailing the travel plans of vacationers who wished to visit national parks during the shutdown.
I am not in favor of government by crisis, particularly when the crisis is an artificial one, such as the government shutdown. And there’s more than enough blame to go around: while I’m not laying blame for the government shutdown solely at the feet of President Obama, it was his former Chief of Staff (and current mayor of Chicago) Rahm Immanuel who coined the saying, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” The President gambled (apparently winning the gamble) that the American people would lay the blame for the shutdown at the feet of Republicans.
The issue of what constitutes “essential government services” which continue to operate as normal during any so-called “shutdown” needs to be revisited. I currently serve on the Utah State Rehabilitation Council, which is entrusted with setting policy for, and overseeing the operation of, the state’s vocational rehabilitation apparatus. At first blush, as important as vocational services are, they would not seem to fall under the rubric of “essential services.” Many people who receive vocational rehabilitation services also receive other government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Income, unemployment insurance, and so on. Provided those benefits continue during any shutdown, it would not seem that vocational rehabilitation is so essential that it should be allowed to continue to operate as usual.
However, vocational rehabilitation, at least in Utah, encompasses assisting with broader array of services than simply those which are directly related to obtaining and keeping a job, such as job search assistance, resume preparation assistance, job coaching, vocation-related education, and so on. It may also encompass psychological and medical services, including the provision of medication and other treatment. Thus, a government shutdown may impact federal outlays to the states which are used for these services, thus interrupting medical treatment which is crucial to a vocational rehabilitation client maintaining employment by, in turn, maintaining sound physical and psychological health.
While a debate whether the federal government should be responsible for such things is worth having, such a debate should not allow needed services to be interrupted without an orderly transition from federal to state control (or without some other provision for their uninterrupted continuance). Those responsible for federal budgeting should take a long, hard look at what are considered “essential” services to prevent a shutdown from impacting not only so-called “non-essential” vocational rehabilitation services, but their more essential counterparts which are integral to helping vocational rehabilitation clients to not only maintain employment, but to maintain sound physical and psychological health, as well. A similar approach should be taken when evaluating which other programs (and what individual components of overall programs) are essential and which are not.
The bottom line is that even many so-called “non-essential” services may actually be responsible for providing benefits which are integral to a person’s well-being. And while an insistence on some degree of fiscal sanity is laudable, blaming “the other guy” (or the opposing party) if-and-when such services are interrupted isn’t going to help those who desperately need them (and who can least afford, even temporarily, to lose them).