A friend of mine once argued that every congressional recess was a reason for celebration. He said it was the only time we could be sure elected officials would do nothing to harm the nation.

That thought came to mind this week as Republicans and Democrats engaged in their latest hissing match, this one leveraging funding for federal agencies against implementation of the Affordable Care Act in a game of "chicken" that shut down the government and solved nothing.

The bluntest perspective on the debacle came during a televised interview with a government worker who had been furloughed: "Someone needs to take Congress over its knee. They're acting like a bunch of spoiled children."

In some ways, this is a rerun we've watched too many times. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives has tried on 41 occasions to overturn so-called "Obamacare," only to be foiled by the Democrat-controlled Senate. It's Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner, the cartoon imagery sadly appropriate.

The difference this time is that government services and the nation's economy are at risk. Washington, D.C., is not so distantly removed from the Bay Area that decisions there can't leave a devastating footprint here.

The funding shutdown closes all 26 of California's national parks, only two of which are named Yosemite and Alcatraz, ruining family vacation plans and slashing tourism dollars upon which vendors and store owners rely to earn a living.


Advertisement

The shutdown puts some 800,000 tax-paying federal employees out of work, including 150,000 in California. It makes new small business and Federal Housing Association loans inaccessible. It imperils disability claims through the Social Security Administration and the Veterans Appeals Board. The Veterans Administration has enough trouble getting out of its own way without another excuse for inaction.

You can even make the case the shutdown endangers national security, unless you think the 30,000 or so Homeland Security personnel who have been furloughed typically sit on their hands. (The E-Verify operation, designed to identify illegal aliens -- of which California has plenty -- is inoperative during the standoff.)

The Environmental Protection Agency has furloughed its pollution regulators (think: Chevron Refinery). The Center for Disease Control will be unable to direct national vaccine programs (just in time for the flu season). The Food and Drug Administration will cease its food-safety operations (e.coli-laced spinach, anyone?).

As soon as the feds pull the plug on spending, the dominoes clitter-clatter one upon another. All of the services we take for granted, from financial regulation to occupational safety enforcement, either shrink or disappear because a dysfunctional Congress can't keep from stepping on its tail.

Perhaps the fallout that will resonate most painfully is the pocketbook effect a government shutdown inevitably has on the economy.

The last time our elected leaders took us down this path, in 1995-96, stocks lost about 4 percent of their value. Back then, the economy was relatively healthy. This time it's wheezing during a recovery. Anyone with an IRA or 401(k) plan should shudder at that.

Voters have widely different reasons for electing the representatives they do. But did any of us really send them to Washington to shut it down?

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.