This story is over 5 years old

Stop Calling It a "Shutdown"

When something—say, the US government—has "shutdown" 17 times (17 times!) over the past four decades, what does "shutdown" even mean anymore?

by Brian Anderson
Sep 30 2013, 8:40pm
Photo via Flickr / CC. 

Well folks, it's come to this: The US government will run out of money at midnight. Barring last minute reconciliations between Democrats and Republicans, who seem to be showing no signs of easing up on their end of the ongoing federal budget impasse, America will plunge into the lightless maw of what's come to be known as a government "shutdown". Here we are, just teetering on the edge. 

Why does it feel like we've been here before? Because we have—17 times since 1976, in fact, according to the Washington Post. Seventeen times. All told, that comes out to 111 days when various, oftentimes science-, tech-, and research-based government agencies (and the everyday citizens who keep those agencies afloat) felt the full weight of Washington simply not being able to get its shit together. Of course, the half dozen "shutdowns" that occured between 1976 and 1979 didn't always result in government functions ceasing outright. They "were often simply funding gaps that didn't have any real-world effect," WaPo notes.

Nevertheless, over the past four decades the lights have gone out, literally and figuratively, 17 times. There's no way around that, or the fact that in a few short hours that tally could well be sitting at 18.  

The problem? The lights are already out, dude. They've actually been out for a very long time, depending on who you ask. If you're a mere mortal like me, just some schlub trying to keep his head above water, it's you and yours who've been fucked hardest time and time again, left to make ends meet in the dark due to the utter ineptitude of American politics. 

So here's an idea: Let's all stop calling it a "shutdown".  

To shutdown something implies that said thing is up and running before its plug gets pulled. Once the plug's been pulled, it's bloody unplugged. How, then, can something be "shutdown" if it's already, well, shutdown? You mean to tell me something that's long been in shambles, in this case the US government, has been patched and righted and resuscitated to the point that it once again runs the risk of collapse? Yeah, OK.  

To call an impending midnight flop a "shutdown" couldn't be anymore offbase. It makes less sense than John Boehner's leathered glow. But it's easy, catchy. It's doomish, hyperbolic fodder for the ouroborus that is the 24-hour news cycle, and we sure seem to love regular reminders that We're All Fucked. So we call it a "shutdown" anyway. Did you hear? The government is going to shutdown!   

How about we start using a term(s) more in line with what's really going? Which is to say, a term that strikes at the heart of the US government's speciality in doing not much of anything decent and productive whatsoever. Something to effect of the old standby, "busines as usual". Here are a few, right off the top of my head:

  • SIGH 
  • YAWN
  • OH YEAH, THAT   

You get the idea—anything but "shutdown". It's a word that appears precisely zero times in the Antideficiency Act of 1884, a collection of administrative and statutory provisions that The Atlantic's Andrew Cohen called the "anti-deadbeat law". This is the document that takes over in times like these, an obscure bit of legislation that forbids: 

...federal officials from entering into financial obligations for which they do not have funding, like paying the salaries of their employees or buying the things they need to run the government. It's also the law that wisely permits certain "essential" government functions—like the military and the courts, for example—to keep operating even in the absence of authorized legislative funding.

But don't worry. Officials on the Hill are fucking on it. The House got cracking this morning at 10AM. The Senate made sure it got a bright and early jump on the day, at 2PM. To think, they could've stayed on vacation. 

So who knows? An agreement could be met later tonight, staving off a thumbs-up-our-asses stalemate that to the surprise of no one would put NASA, the National Parks Service, national museums, passport agencies, veterans benefit and school grant programs, the Centers for Disease Control, and other non "essential" services on hold, as my colleague Meg Neal reported. That means all those respective websites will simply go dark, and also that an estimated 800,000 government workers will be furloughed.

What's that? You don't work for the man? You're fucked, too. Sorry.

Anyway, the takeaway here is twofold. As Cohen added, a federal "shutdown" doesn't merely affect everything going on at the federal level at the time of "shutdown". Future work gets fucked, as well: "[S]hutting down the federal government is terribly wasteful and expensive because of the re-start costs involved." 

Which is precisely why the lights are already out, why we can't un-light them any further, and why it's about damn time we shutdown "shutdown".