It's the Washington Zoo! Home of Death Panels & Tea Party Terrorists

Steve Russell

Indians might hope for a different outcome from the craziness that recently seized Washington, a little something for us, some residue in the can that got kicked down the road past the first of the year. We might hope for fewer condescending lectures about dysfunctional tribal governments.

The colonists really showed us some chops in the matter of dysfunction. The principle at stake in the beginning seemed to be keeping the fire of American exceptionalism burning, in this case the United States as the one industrialized nation in the world with the most expensive health care, bar none, along side the poorest health care outcomes for ordinary citizens.

Since Harry Truman was President, the Democrats have been trying to replace the death panels run by private insurance and motivated by profit with death panels run by the government and motivated by winning elections. To believe in a system with no death panels is to believe in the Health Care Fairy.

This changing of death panels would of course lead to dictatorships like the ones in Canada and Great Britain…and all of Western Europe. Scandinavia. Israel. Japan. Australia. New Zealand. All nations that deny the fundamental human right to bankruptcy in case of illness and to avoid the doctor until you are sick enough for the emergency room, where they have to treat you right after they finish with auto accidents, gunshot wounds, and heart attacks.

The Tea Party shut down the US government in the service of this noble cause and then backed off of it within 48 hours. What followed was a bewildering list of shifting demands, but it’s safe to say that what they wanted to communicate was the need for the government to quit spending so much money. That only applies to spending with which they disagree, but they do disagree with big-ticket items like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They would abolish the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but the BIA is really small potatoes.

So the reason for the shutdown became frugality. In response to the fact that there were some emergencies during the shutdown that required the services of government employees who were not getting their paychecks—security breaches in Washington, a salmonella outbreak, major flooding—Congress passed a law ensuring federal employees would be paid when the government reopened. So the involuntary furloughs turned into paid vacations, albeit with not much vacation fun since income was suspended.

Once they decided to pay the workers after they called off the crazy, Congress had effectively shut down the parts of government that take in money and left the parts of government that spend money, while delaying the spending.

For some reason, this brings animal metaphors into my head, so consider the National Zoo as an example of this. The workers who care for the animals in the National Zoo are critical so the animals don’t die, but the workers who enable us to visit the animals are not critical. The workers who enable us to visit also take in admission fees and sell souvenirs. So we the taxpayers get to pay for a zoo we can’t visit. Congress may be a zoo, but at least we can visit.

Paying the workers at the end of the shutdown does not make them whole because they bear the transaction costs of making do while Congress plays the game out. “Transaction costs” are anything from a payday loan to accepting help from friends or relatives. If you touch your uncle for a couple of hundred bucks because your paycheck is late, you owe him a couple of hundred bucks but you also owe him a favor. Indians who live in Indian communities try to give more favors than they get as a matter of honor, but that’s just us. Nobody likes to be indebted.

Paying the workers at the end of the shutdown does not make taxpayers whole because they lose the services of the government workers for the duration, excepting workers deemed “critical.” Policemen and zookeepers get to work for free temporarily, proving once more they have a lot in common.

Paying government workers at the end of the shutdown does not even address the losses of the workers who depend on the spending of government workers or of visitors to government facilities that are closed.

The cost figure I keep hearing from this government shutdown over the government spending too much money is $24 billion. I am reminded that the last time Congress played games with the debt ceiling, in 2011, it increased public borrowing costs by $18.9 billion dollars. Increased public borrowing costs cascade down into higher interest on mortgages, car loans, and credit cards, all ultimately pegged to treasury notes.

And there I was, the selfish retired guy, wondering if I was going to see my VA disability check in November? I should have known that if you blow twenty billion here and twenty-four billion there, it could add up to some real money, so at some point disabled vets will have to kick in to make it up.

Indians can hope that the recent outbreak of crazy in Washington was crazy enough that we can be free to criticize our own tribal governments without giving non-Indians license to run their mouths and point fingers. Just in case the crazy we just saw was not quite enough, though, we get to do it again early next year. Enjoy your holiday season.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.


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Anonymous's picture
Glad he reminds us of how those who are affected by government shutdowns never truly get repaid.
Michael Madrid's picture
Where was the Tea Party when George W. was spending money like a drunken sailor? Has anyone but me noticed that the Presidents that tank the economy are usually Republican? Reagan had the problem, so did Daddy Bush. Clinton fixed Daddy Bush's mistake and left Dubya a surplus which he promptly overspent by putting two wars on our Chinese credit card. It doesn't take an accountant to know that you can't pay for two wars with tax breaks for the rich and that Bush DID NOT pay off the debts he incurred before Obama took office. That doesn't, however, stop these idiots from blaming Obama for everything.
Michael Madrid
Anonymous's picture
I would love to see the turbulence if a NATIVE AMERICAN ran for PRESIDENT
Anonymous's picture
A few replies to stevef, please. 1. I did not call the Tea Party "terrorists." Whoever put the head on my column did. 2. It's one of the hazards of tribal enrollment that you get tagged with every stupid thing your tribe has done. In this case, my opinion of the disenrollment of the Cherokee freedmen is a matter of public record both in this publication and in the Cherokee Phoenix, so the only reason you are tagging me is because I am Cherokee. To that, I must plead guilty. The Cherokees also failed to join up with Tecumseh when he asked--do I also get tagged with that? 3. The shutdown was not about frugality. It was about stupid. For the record, a time of high unemployment is not a time for frugality because it sucks more demand out of the economy. We should at this time be spending more, not less, because our infrastructure is rotting while people need work and interest rates are low. 4. Governments do not run like households or like businesses. Governments fortunate enough to have reserve currencies do not run the same way as governments that do not. It is perfectly sensible to spend more than your income in any particular year or any particular decade and calling for frugality when unemployment is over 7% is just nutty. The pertinent numbers over the long haul are not taxation and spending, but rather budget deficit as a percentage of GDP v. growth rate of GDP. Spending that puts people to work and therefore increases the growth rate does no harm to the long term deficit.