How I Learned to Love a U.S. Government Shutdown: Caroline Baum

What if the U.S. government shut down and no one noticed?

Even worse (or better, depending on one’s point of view), what if all federal workers went on furlough and the public realized there were benefits, not just costs, to smaller government?

The sixth stop-gap spending bill, known as a continuing resolution, expires tomorrow. In the event Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on a budget for fiscal year 2011, which is more than half over, the federal government, or parts of it, will shut down.

Essential services will be maintained, including the distribution of Social Security checks. Employees involved in the military, national security and law enforcement will stay on the job. Non-essential workers will be furloughed.

Neither party seems eager to halt government operations because a) they don’t want to shoulder the blame, as Republicans did in 1995; or b) they don’t want to be subject to repercussions (read: voter backlash) in 2012.

President Barack Obama says a shutdown would devastate the economy at a time when job growth is struggling to reach a cruising altitude. What’s more, it would further reduce confidence in government.

Guess what? It can’t go much lower. The approval rating for Congress dropped to 18 percent last month, near the lowest in the Gallup poll’s 37-year history of tracking the trend.

So stop all the negativity and look at the bright side. A government shutdown would give federal employees a well-deserved respite from those grueling 9-to-5 workdays. Even essential workers deserve a break.

My advice is to stop worrying and learn to love a U.S. government shutdown. Just imagine all the benefits…

Count the Ways

President Obama would be able to work on his golf game without the risk of appearing disengaged at a time when the country is involved in an It’s-Not-a-War in Libya.

The U.S. State Department would have time to formulate a coherent foreign policy rather than deal with each Middle East uprising on an ad hoc basis. It can start by defining the criteria it uses to differentiate between good dictators (Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi) and bad dictators (Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi).

CIA operatives would have time to hunker down with Rosetta Stone software and become fluent in Arabic so that next time they can provide valuable intel before a region ignites.

A government closure would give the investigators at the Securities and Exchange Commission an opportunity to read and respond to information provided by whistleblowers like Harry Markopolos.

Light Reading

The residential real estate market might get some breathing room to heal itself without an array of federal programs that create artificial demand for housing, prop up prices and delay the day of reckoning for underwater homeowners.

A government shutdown would reduce commuter traffic on the Beltway. Air traffic controllers could catch up on their sleep. Tourists would face shorter lines at Washington’s monuments, although they’d have to sneak in.

No lawmakers means no new laws, regulations, targeted tax breaks, exemptions or loopholes. Members of Congress would have much-needed time to read the health-care bill they passed last year, holding then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to her word when she said: “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”

Bigger Means Smaller

A government shutdown would give family-values Republicans more time to spend with spouses and children (preferably their own). Democrats favoring income redistribution (yours, not theirs) could use the time to consult with their accountants so they can take advantage of the loopholes they write into the tax code. Members of both parties would have more time for fundraising.

Too-big-to-fail banks would get a taste of what it’s like to swim without a life preserver should a crisis strike while the government is shuttered.

Media companies should see improved profits as paid advertisements replace the endless obligatory coverage of the president and Congress bloviating.

Finally, a shutdown would produce such an outcry and warnings of dire consequences from the media, activists and politicians, it might just get open-minded folks to reflect on how the government got so big and why it’s so intertwined in our lives.

If that’s the first step to a smaller government, then by all means, shut it down.

(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Caroline Baum in New York at cabaum@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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