Government “shutdowns” in the United States occur when Congress and the president cannot agree on appropriations bills to fund the federal government before the previous ones expire.
Since the current budget and appropriations process began in 1976, the federal government “shut down” three times during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, once under George H.W. Bush, twice under Bill Clinton, once under Barack Obama, and twice under Donald Trump.
The last government shutdown was the longest on record — 35 days, from December 22, 2018, until January 25, 2019. Like previous shutdowns, employees of the federal government deemed to be essential continued to report to work while those considered to be inessential were furloughed.
New York Times best-selling author Michael Lewis has a new chapter in the forthcoming paperback edition of his book The Fifth Risk. He recently adapted the chapter for a Bloomberg opinion piece titled “Portrait of an Inessential Government Worker.”
In the chapter, Lewis introduces us to Art Allen who, for nearly 40 years, “had been the lone oceanographer inside the U.S. Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue division.” Allen had “mastered the art of finding things and people lost at sea.” “I’ve only thought about one problem in my life,” said Allen, “which is how to improve Coast Guard search and rescue.”
It turns out that “the Coast Guard plucks 10 people a day out of the ocean, on average. Another three die before they’re found. Which is to say that 13 Americans, every day, need to be hauled out of the water or off some crippled sailboat or sea kayak or paddleboard.”
Lewis first learned of Allen’s existence during the 35-day government shutdown. As he explains it,
During the shutdown I’d stumbled upon a very long list of federal workers who had been nominated for an obscure public-service award called the Sammies. Virtually all the people on the list had been laid off without pay and more or less told by their society that their work was not all that important. I wondered what it felt like to be at once up for an award for one’s work, and required by law not to do it. The list was in alphabetical order. At the top was Arthur A. Allen.
Allen was just one of thousands of government employees classified as an inessential federal worker.
Lewis makes the case in his article that Allen was a very essential federal worker, whose calculations and experiments were responsible for saving many lives. I won’t argue with him about Allen, but I will say that many federal workers are absolutely inessential. They are so inessential that their agencies should be shuttered and every last one of them should be dismissed, immediately. Here are just a few of them that come to mind:
Employees of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA enforces “the provisions of the Controlled Substances Act as they pertain to the manufacture, distribution, and dispensing of legally produced controlled substances”; it also engages in the “seizure and forfeiture of assets derived from, traceable to, or intended to be used for illicit drug trafficking.” But since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with the possession, use, or distribution of drugs, every employee of the DEA is inessential and should be dismissed immediately.
Employees of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The ATF “protects the public from crimes involving firearms, explosives, arson, and the diversion of alcohol and tobacco products; regulates lawful commerce in firearms and explosives; and provides worldwide support to law enforcement, public safety, and industry partners.” But since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or explosives, every employee of the ATF is inessential and should be dismissed immediately.
Employees of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Humanities (NEH). The NEA “gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities” by partnering with “state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies.” The NEH “serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.” Its grants “typically go to cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, and radio stations, and to individual scholars.” But since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with the arts or humanities, every employee of the NEA and NEH is inessential and should be dismissed immediately.
Employees of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA’s mission is to “protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.” Yet, undercover tests of multiple airport security checkpoints by the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly show that the TSA fails more than half the time in identifying mock threats of weapons and bombs. But regardless, since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to provide security for any mode of transportation, every employee of the TSA is inessential and should be dismissed immediately.
Employees of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The USAID “leads international development and humanitarian efforts to save lives, reduce poverty, strengthen democratic governance and help people progress beyond assistance.” In other words, it dispenses foreign aid. But since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to take money from Americans and give it to foreigners, foreign governments, or NGOs, every employee of the USAID is inessential and should be dismissed immediately.
Employees of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The CPB “is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting and the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services.” Its mission “is to ensure universal access to non-commercial, high-quality content and telecommunications services.” But since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with broadcasting or the media, every employee of the CPB is inessential and should be dismissed immediately.
Employees of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC “is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” But since the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to seek to prohibit discrimination or prosecute people for practicing discrimination, every employee of the EEOC is inessential and should be dismissed immediately.
It is all really that simple.
But how do you know if an employee of the federal government is inessential?
Liberals, progressives, moderates, conservatives, and libertarians can argue all day long about what they believe is the proper role of government and never reach agreement. But one thing they should agree on is that the Constitution — no matter how much they may want it to — doesn’t authorize any of the above agencies.
Again, it is all really that simple.
The next time the federal government shuts down, every employee of each of the above federal agencies should be furloughed before one federal employee at a national park or monument is told not to report to work. Better yet, why wait for a government shutdown? Send home every employee of the DEA, ATF, NEA, NEH, TSA, USAID, CPB, and EEOC now. Americans as a whole will be better off for it.