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What Was ‘Essential’ and What Wasn’t

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Posted on Oct 19, 2013
Beverly & Pack (CC BY 2.0)

By Mattea Kramer and Jo Comerford, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

On a damp Friday morning 11 days into the government shutdown, a “few dozen” truckers took to the Capital Beltway in a demonstration with the Twitter hashtag #T2SDA (Truckers to Shut Down America).  They wanted to tell lawmakers they were angry, launch an impeachment campaign against the president, and pressure Congress to end itself.

They were on a “ride for the Constitution,” protesting big government and yet the opinion polls were clear.  In fact, the numbers were stunning.  One after another,  they showed that Americans opposed the shutdown and were hurting because of it.  At that moment, according to those polls, nearly one in three Americans said they felt personally affected not by too much government,  but by too little, by the sudden freeze in critical services.

In reality, that government shutdown was partial and selective. Paychecks, for example, kept flowing to the very lawmakers who most fervently supported it, while the plush congressional gym with its heated pool, paddleball courts, and flat-screen televisions remained open. That’s because “essential” services continued, even as “nonessential” ones ceased. And it turned out that whether the services you cared about were essential or not was a matter of just who got to do the defining.  In that distinction between what was necessary and what wasn’t, it was easy enough to spot the values of the people’s representatives. And what we saw was gut-wrenching. Stomach-churning.

Prioritized above all else were, of course, “national security” activities, deemed beyond essential under the banner of “protecting life and property.”  Surveillance at the National Security Agency, for instance, continued, uninterrupted, though it was liberated from its obviously nonessential and, even in the best-funded of times, minimal responsibility to disclose those activities under the Freedom of Information Act.  Such disclosure was judged superfluous in a shutdown era, while spying on Americans (not to speak of Brazilians, Mexicans, Europeans, Indians, and others around the planet) was deemed indispensible.

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Then there was the carefully orchestrated Special Operations Forces mission in Libya to capture a terror suspect off the streets of Tripoli in broad daylight, proving that in a shutdown period, the U.S. military wasn’t about to shut off the lights. And don’t forget the nighttime landing of a Navy SEAL team in Somalia in an unsuccessful attempt to capture a different terrorist target. These activities were deemed essential to national survival, even though the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack are, at the moment, estimated at around one in 20 million. Remember that number, because we’ll come back to it.

Indeed, only for a brief moment did the shutdown reduce the gusher of taxpayer dollars, billions and billions of them, into the Pentagon’s coffers. After a couple days in which civilian Defense Department employees were furloughed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 90% of them could resume work because they “contribute to morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.” This from the crew that, according to Foreign Policy, went on a jaw-dropping, morale-boosting $5 billion spending spree on the eve of the shutdown to exhaust any remaining cash from the closing fiscal year, buying spy satellites, drones, infrared cameras and, yes, a $9 million sparkling new gym for the Air Force Academy, replete with CrossFit space and a “television studio.”

Furloughing Children

Then there were the nonessential activities.

In Arkansas, for instance, federal funds for infant formula to feed 2,000 at-risk newborn babies were in jeopardy, as were 85,000 meals for needy children in that state. Nutrition for low-income kids was considered nonessential even though one in four children in this country doesn’t have consistent access to nutritious food, and medical research makes it clear that improper nutrition stunts brain architecture in the young, forever affecting their ability to learn and interact socially. Things got so bad that a Texas couple dug into their own reserves to keep the program running in six states.

If children in need were “furloughed,” so were abused women. Across the country, domestic violence shelters struggled to provide services as federal funds were cut off. Some shelters raised spare change from their communities to keep the doors open. According to estimates, as many as six million women each year are victims of domestic violence. On average in this country, three women are murdered by an intimate partner every day.


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