George Packer writes in New York ragazine:
Jenny Brown started working for the Internal Revenue Service right out of high school, in 1985, typing numbers from tax returns into a computer. Her home town, of Ogden, Utah, has not only a large I.R.S. facility but an Air Force base, Hill Field, where Brown’s father worked as a civilian. Her stepfather and her late sister used to work at the base; a brother, a son, and a nephew work there now. Her other son is with the Army in Afghanistan, and two other nephews are in the Air Force. “We’re really just a government family,” Brown said last week, on the second-to-last day of the shutdown. And Ogden is a government town, with twenty-four thousand federal employees. Brown grew up with the belief that a government job was secure, well-paying, and honorable, but, when she told her new doctor recently that she works for the I.R.S., he replied, in all seriousness, “Do you need a prescription for Xanax, or some kind of stress reducer?”
In fact, a lot of Brown’s colleagues, in Ogden and around the country, are taking pills for stress. They haven’t had a raise in three years. Every I.R.S. employee lost three days of pay last summer, owing to furloughs brought on by the blind budget cutting known as sequestration, and during the shutdown ninety per cent of the agency’s employees were sent home without pay. Many of them now live paycheck to paycheck, and some had to turn to food banks during the sixteen days of the shutdown, while the charity at the Ogden local of the National Treasury Employees Union (Brown is the president of Chapter 67) ran low on supplies. Nationally, the agency’s workforce has been cut by almost twenty-five per cent in the past two decades, while the number of individual tax returns filed has grown by an even larger figure.
With the extra workload, face-to-face audits have dropped by half since 1992, as have the odds of being convicted for a tax crime. Frank Clemente, the director of Americans for Tax Fairness, says, “When the I.R.S. doesn’t have the money to do its job, it’s easier for wealthy people and big corporations to cheat the system, especially by hiding profits offshore.” For every dollar added to the I.R.S. budget, the agency is able to collect at least seven dollars in revenue, but in times of austerity that money doesn’t come in—which means that, in recent years, the Treasury has lost billions in taxes, starving government services and increasing the deficit. Another result, Jenny Brown pointed out, is that wait times at the Ogden call center have risen from ten or fifteen minutes a few years ago to an hour or more today. “By the time they get the I.R.S. on the phone, they’re frustrated, and they vent awhile, which takes up more time,” she said.
Worst of all is the hostility that Brown senses toward government employees in general, but especially those at the I.R.S. She’s learned not to mention her job to strangers, sparing herself the rude comebacks. “On Facebook, my colleagues don’t put anything where it asks where you work,” Brown said. Instead, they write, “If you know me, you know where I work”—as if they were employed at a pet crematory, or a strip club. “Morale is horrible. People are looking for a way to get out of the government.” After twenty-eight years on the job, she wouldn’t dream of recommending federal employment to anyone.
The government shutdown is over. National default has been averted, for now. According to an estimate by Standard & Poor’s, the Tea Party’s brinkmanship cost the American economy twenty-four billion dollars—more than half a percentage point of quarterly growth. House Republicans have suffered a huge tactical defeat of their own devising, and their approval ratings are at an all-time low. President Obama and the Democrats in Congress appear strong for refusing to give in to blackmail.
But in a larger sense the Republicans are winning, and have been for the past three years, if not the past thirty. They’re just too blinkered by fantasies of total victory to see it. The shutdown caused havoc for federal workers and the citizens they serve across the country. Parks and museums closed, new cancer patients were locked out of clinical trials, loans to small businesses and rural areas froze, time ran down on implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial-regulation law, trade talks had to be postponed. All this chaos only brings the government into greater disrepute, and, as Jenny Brown’s colleagues dig their way out of the backlog, they’ll be fielding calls from many more enraged taxpayers. It would be naïve to think that intransigent Republicans don’t regard these consequences of their actions with indifference, if not outright pleasure. Ever since Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural, pronounced government to be the problem, elected Republicans have been doing everything possible to make it true.
These days, Republicans may be losing politically and resorting to increasingly anti-majoritarian means—gerrymandering, filibuster abuse, voter suppression, activist Supreme Court decisions, legislative terrorism—to nullify election results. But on economic-policy matters they are setting the terms. Senator Ted Cruz can be justly described as a demagogic fool, but lately he’s been on the offensive far more than the White House has. The deficit is in fairly precipitous decline, but job growth is anemic, and millions of Americans remain chronically unemployed. Democrats control the White House and the Senate, and last year they won a larger share of the national vote in the House than Republicans did. And yet the dominant argument in Washington is over spending cuts, not over ways to increase economic growth and address acute problems like inequality, poor schools, and infrastructure decay. “The whole debate over the last couple of weeks is playing against a backdrop of how much to increase austerity, not to invest in the economy,” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, said last week. “We are living in a time of government withering on the vine.”
While House Republicans go home to sift through the debris of their defeat, the sequester remains in place, with deeper cuts ahead. A hiring freeze at United States Attorneys’ offices will continue and they will have to go on using volunteers. There will be no new agents to fill training classes at the F.B.I. Academy, while the bureau’s concrete headquarters, on Pennsylvania Avenue, crumbles. The loss of government scholarships at the National Health Services Corps will mean fewer doctors in underserved areas. Jenny Brown’s friends and co-workers in Ogden will look for jobs in the private sector. And the talk in Washington will return to deficit reduction. ♦