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Congress could shut down the government yet again—and here’s the real cost

It’s not just annoying. It’s killing the economy.

Senator Harry Reid has just threatened yet another government shutdown, warning in advance of the fall’s budget deliberations that if Republicans refuse to budge on key spending authorizations, it may be impossible to settle on a budget. If Congress yet again fails to reach an agreement, the nation will experience what’s politely called a “funding gap”—otherwise known as a halt in all but essential government operations.

Given how unpopular shutdowns are with the general public and the Internet in particular, it’s time to put an end to them, limiting the government chess games played with real lives. Maybe Congress doesn’t want to work for the people, but the people are tired of Congress not working for them.

These periodic Congressional tantrums occur when both major parties argue for so long about the national budget that they miss the deadline to authorize it, putting the nation in the position of having no money to run itself. In the notorious shutdown of 2013, the American economy lost $24 billion over 16 days, illustrating the high stakes of funding gaps. It’s not just about whether the government runs when the nation’s entire engine grinds to a halt, which is why everyone has a stake in the outcome of budget negotiations.

Americans tend to be understandably frustrated when shutdowns close national parks, government offices, and effectively every aspect of government, including websites and servers. While fundamental and critical roles are still filled—particularly those pertaining to national security—thousands of furloughed workers find themselves without income over the course of shutdowns, too, though they are entitled to retroactive pay.

This may explain why Twitter is already angry about the prospect of yet another shutdown in a decade that’s been peppered with an endless series of them; it’s starting to feel like a reprise of the endless battles over the Hyde Amendment, which led to multiple funding gaps in the 1970s.

Shutdowns read like obnoxious political grandstanding because they are, and the party at fault is often the GOP, no matter how much Speaker John Boehner wants to paint the looming shutdown as a Democratic problem.

While conservatives and liberals alike jockey for position and hope to get the funding they want without giving in to the other side, liberals tend to have an advantage: They’re generally not opposed to funding that supports fundamental operations of the nation. That often makes them more willing to come to the bargaining table, though they’re most effective when backed by a president who makes it clear that lack of agreement won’t be tolerated.

Conservatives, especially those on the far right, participate in shutdowns because they refuse to budge, and the result can be a huge problem for the party, as Paul Waldman writes at the Washington Post.

Let’s remember that every time we’ve had one of these confrontations in the last few years, it has ended the same way: Republicans say they’ll never ever compromise, they get blamed for the chaos, the political pressure rises, and eventually they give in. So if they know what’s good for them, they could avoid a whole lot of headache by just speeding things up and compromising at the start. They’ll argue that it’s really the Democrats who are forcing the confrontation and risking a government shutdown, but they’re no more likely this time to win that argument than they have been in the past.

This is a particular image issue this year as Republicans are attempting to retake the White House. They’re looking at an utterly bizarre and depressing field of candidates, with no logically appealing centrist among them to bring in moderate voters and those sitting on the fence. They’re also facing down a public that’s begun to grow frustrated with Republican obstructionism, with recent shutdowns looming in the memory of many taxpayers.

Notably, conservatives aren’t even pretending to try to reach an agreement. When Democratic leaders suggested holding a budget summit to address concerns about a possible gap, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wasn’t interested.  Voters are likely to remember his sentiments come 2016; political posturing can backfire, especially when it comes to threatening funding that Americans rely on for services they use in their daily lives.

After the government faced a similar situation just last year, the Atlantic‘s Molly Ball wrote, “Republican leaders are worried that conservatives will not go along with a simple government-funding bill unless it reflects their priorities.” Her comments reflected the fact that many conservatives actively tout their roles in shutdowns, mistakenly believing that this will play to their demographic when in fact it’s likely to just infuriate voters more.

Americans aren’t playing ball. In 2013, a bold citizen bravely risked arrest by breaking onto the national mall to… mow the lawn. He viewed yard maintenance as his civic duty, telling the Washington Post: “Over my dead body are we going to find trash pouring out of these trash cans.”

The comment wasn’t a slight against the Parks Service, which was operating with its hands tied since the department didn’t have funding to send out groundskeepers. He also insisted that he wasn’t pointing fingers or wanting to engage in a political statement, but he most definitely was. Had Congress stopped sniping long enough to sit down and reach an agreement regarding the budget, he wouldn’t have been chainsawing logs on government property.

His isn’t the only protest against the gaps. It’s probably not surprising that there’s even a Change.org petition on government shutdowns—in fact, there’s more than one. Hell hath no fury like an Internet deprived of basic government services.

The Internet has proved itself adept at organizing around clear, concrete causes. While social media users don’t necessarily understand sequestration—the issue lying at the heart of the current threat—they don’t have to in order to pummel Congress with outrage. Politicians have trouble comprehending that—even though they use social media for their campaigns and public outreach—social media can turn on them, and it can quickly go viral.

In 2013, the Internet was restless, and the situation is likely to be even worse today. In 2015, users of services like Twitter have even more experience with activism, pushing ideas to the forefront, and selecting targets for their fury. Politicians who think they’ll be able to get off scot free may find themselves in the hot seat, as they should. If the government can’t commit to going to work, meeting deadlines, and securing funding for fundamental operations, it’s time to force Congress’ hand.

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.