November 26, 2014

LITTLE DETAILS: Closed for business

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By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

October 10, 2013

Closed for business. As this article goes to press, our government is basically shuttered, with few exceptions. All Americans, whatever their political stripes, should understand that this vast waste of money and time damages our nation. We are diminished in the eyes of our citizens. We are weakened in the eyes of our geopolitical neighbors, friends and foes. We are distracted from the very important work our government is supposed to do.

Our political leaders, entrusted via the electoral process to represent our best interests, are failing us. If they were parents, custodial rights would be rescinded. If they were accountants, they’d be fired. If they were our friends, we’d have “unfriended” them long ago—for disloyalty.

Political dysfunction continues. The language of American politics is shifting, narrowing in scope. Emphasis is on a short, repeating vocabulary which limits dialogue and progress forward. These are words citizens should understand if we are to hold our leaders accountable.

Grandstanding: to play or act so as to impress others

Brinkmanship: the art of causing or allowing a dangerous situation to become extremely dangerous in order to get the results you want

Hostage: a person taken by force to secure the taker’s demands

Pawn: one that can be used to further the purposes of another

Furlough: mandatory time off work with no pay

Extremist: belief in and support for ideas that are very far from what most people consider correct or reasonable

As our political leaders bicker, hem and haw, Americans pay a very dear price. Money and human capital are being wasted. Here’s a sampling of programs and services impacted by the government shutdown:

Federal employees—with exemptions for a small percentage of “excepted” personnel—are furloughed. My brother-in-law, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Interior, could face penalties if he attempted to work during this time.

The message on the National Park Service website says, “Because of the federal shutdown, all national parks are closed and National Park Service webpages are not operating.” Don’t bother driving to Acadia in Maine or flying out to Yosemite in California; their welcome mat is pulled. Hospitality services—campgrounds, hotels, shops, restaurants and gas stations—in or near our fifty-nine national parks face significant economic losses.

The Department of State, charged with advancing American foreign policy objectives, issued a multi-page memo on Sept. 27th to management in anticipation of a shutdown. Provisions for their furloughed employees include:  “…perform only those tasks necessary to safeguard property, records, and information, and to complete administrative functions such as processing payroll for pay through the previous pay period (if one has just ended).” Our embassies may not be closing, but it could take longer to obtain a passport.

The Internal Revenue Service’s website advises, “Due to the current lapse in appropriations, IRS operations are limited. However, the underlying tax law remains in effect, and all taxpayers should continue to meet their tax obligations as normal.” If you are among the individuals and businesses who gained an extension enabling you to file your 2012 taxes by Oct. 15, 2013, your deadline remains. If you have an appointment regarding a pending appeal, you should assume it is cancelled. Walk-in tax assistance offices, live telephone assistance and paper correspondence are halted. If you have questions for the Federal Tax Collector, your only hope is to call their automated toll-free number to speak with a robot.

The National Institutes of Health, our nation’s medical research agency, is closed. I checked the blog of NIH director, Dr. Francis S. Collins, noting the following message:  “Due to a lapse in government funding, new posts and responses may not originate from this account until appropriations are enacted.” This agency closure is, to me, among the most troubling. Medical research leading to clinical trials is sometimes the last hope—the only hope—remaining for individuals facing life-threatening diseases.

Air traffic controllers, uniformed armed services personnel, and Transportation Security Administration employees are among federal employees expected to be spared furloughs. Meat inspectors may also avoid significant furloughs. The latter makes me suspicious. Suspend obesity research at the NIH while ensuring safe access to a Big Mac? It’s worth a ponder.

As I watch our political leaders go through these political gymnastics, I feel like a hostage, a pawn on a chessboard taken over by an extremist minority. While these shenanigans are a mere distraction to me, at present, I realize it’s about bread and butter issues for many of my compatriots.

It’s time for a paradigm shift. It’s time for good faith negotiations. For that minority of political leaders who do not understand this phrase, let me illuminate: good faith is honesty in dealing with others.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

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