Like 800,000 other Americans, I’ve found myself with a lot of free time lately. About 72 hours’ worth of it so far, give or take a few eight-hour increments. Yes, I am considered a non-essential federal employee, and like many of my fellow desk jockeys I’ve been furloughed during the federal government’s shutdown. Having found a lot of “me time,” I’ve been keeping myself occupied. I sleep in, eat lunch, take naps, and forget what day it is. I also surf the web a lot, mainly to find out what the news is. After all, if the shutdown suddenly ends while I’m stepping over Ramen noodle boxes, I’m going to need to work a shower into my new routine.
Those of you with essential jobs may be aware that the federal government shut down on October 1st because the United States House of Representatives and Senate could not agree on a continuing resolution to fund the government. The Republican-held House wants a resolution that defunds the Affordable Care Act, and the Democrat-held Senate and President Obama will have none of that. There are two results to this impasse: 1) one-third of the federal government remains unfunded and gets to stay home until they work this mess out; and 2) seemingly all of America rushes onto Facebook to publicly announce that they have absolutely no clue how the U.S. Government functions.
Allow me to explain. After rising early one afternoon to peruse the latest of Facebook’s many cat videos, I began noticing a common theme among my virtual friends’ postings: the legality of the House of Representatives in not funding the Affordable Care Act. “The ACA,” they said collectively, “has been passed by Congress, signed by the President, and survived a court challenge! The House has tried 40 times to repeal it and it failed each time! What they’re doing by not funding the ACA is unprecedented and unconstitutional! The House is illegally breaking its own rules, and they’ve shut down the entire government!”
Now, I might be paid (not now, though) to be a health care policy expert, but I got here by virtue of starting as an aide in a state legislature and winding along a career path in health advocacy much in the same way a speeding car winds its way through a forest. I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours watching and participating in the workings of my state legislature and Congress. I know that irrespective of the policy implications of the shutdown, much of what’s being said in social media about it simply isn’t true.
And this is the point at which I experienced a delusion. You see, as an analyst I suffer from the side effects of thinking that people are thankful to hear what I know. Thus, I cheerfully tried correcting these errors. “What the House is doing is in fact Constitutional,” I wrote. “It is the mandate of the House and Senate to create, pass, review, amend, and repeal laws. Therefore, both the House and Senate may seek to repeal legislation regardless of the fact it had been previously passed by Congress and signed into law by the President; survived court challenges; or there have already been 40 unsuccessful attempts to repeal it. The House also is mandated to set the budget, and it is their prerogative to fund laws at zero dollars if they do not agree with it; this has happened many times before, and this process is one of the checks and balances of our government. Also, the Constitution states that the two chambers get to set their own procedural rules, so these rules cannot be subject to federal law and may be changed at any time and for any reason at the will of the chamber’s majority party; in fact, the very concept of ‘legality’ only loosely applies to chamber rules. Finally, Obama is not at fault for the shutdown. As President, he is the head of the National Park Service and at this point is only responsible for what may or may not be the unnecessary closings of certain national historic sites, parks, and monuments. Ultimately, the shutdown is a negotiation matter the responsibility for which belongs to both the House and Senate, and not just the House.”
I didn’t even get the chance to say, “Good job, Matt! Now there’ll never be another argument on Facebook!” before the blast hit me. I may as well have pronounced that cat videos are a waste of time. To make a long story short, every fact I presented got ruthlessly picked apart like grandma’s Hummel collection at her estate sale. Of course, I just thought people weren’t getting my points, so I took the time to reword things to help them understand better. But for some reason that didn’t work, either. It only made people start ranting at me about the pros and cons of the ACA, where once again my professional knowledge sure didn’t help my popularity. Finally, exhausted from my quest to bring knowledge to the masses for the better part of a day, I gave up to survey my keep: the wreckage of a thousand well-intentioned Facebook exchanges lay before me, and about half the people I know now refuse to talk to me. Then my wife reminded me that nobody likes a know-it-all.
I wonder what happened. I wasn’t telling people anything they didn’t already learn in high school. Could the majority of educated American adults really lack a basic functional knowledge of how their own government worked? “Yes,” I tell myself now, but only because I‘m an optimist with a never-ending supply of faith. It had become clear that support and anger at the shutdown was not a matter of informed reason, it was largely a function of political leanings. I’d rather know my countrymen are ignorant the way their government works rather than entertain the thought that their personal politics could blind so many people to even the most basic of truths of high school civics.
Written by By Matt Haarington
Directory of Public Policy
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