A Rehearsal for a Government Shutdown

Daily headlines relate the grim details of the current U.S. federal government shutdown of December 2018 to January 2019, now the longest in the history of the United States.  Detailed news reports analyze the growing economic and social impact of the shutdown on federal workers, their families, and American society.

Federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay are most directly affected by the government shutdown, but many American citizens are learning (once again) that the federal government shapes many aspects of their daily lives.

The State of Illinois experienced a prolonged partial state government shutdown from 2015-2017 that seems to have been a rehearsal for the federal government shutdown.

Curiously, national news media did not pay much attention to the two-year Illinois state shutdown and have not focused on the comparisons between the Illinois shutdown and the current federal government shutdown. The local and state reporters who did cover the shutdown repeatedly labelled it as a “budget impasse” rather than as a “government shutdown.”

Governor Bruce Rauner (R), a billionaire business leader, presented himself as a political outsider who was unbeholden to the Illinois political machine and would “shake up Springfield” and disrupt state politics.

When Governor Rauner issued his first budget proposal in February 2015, he claimed that “for far too long we have been living beyond our means—spending money that Illinois taxpayers could not afford.” Rauner’s proposed solution was to slash the state budget by $6 Billion—cutting state workers’ benefits, higher education funding, and state support to local governments in order to instill budget “discipline” on the state. Rauner simultaneously sought to cut state income taxes and undermine union operations in the state.

The Democratic-controlled Illinois Senate and House naturally refused to pass such massive budget cuts and anti-union “reforms”. The result was a partial state government shutdown that lasted two years.

Rauner had actually long planned to engineer a government shutdown in Illinois.

NPR reported that “on September 18, 2012, the year before Bruce Rauner declared his candidacy for governor, he shared his vision for a crisis that could help reshape state government.” Rauner intended to use a government shutdown to provoke a political crisis that would divide the Democratic party between union workers and non-unionized workers.

Rauner argued that “In Illinois there’s been a long-time history of what I would call social service, social justice, a bigger role for government in the safety net than in many other states,” speaking at a tax policy conference sponsored by the George W. Bush Institute. Social services, he claimed, simply cost too much money for Illinois citizens.

Rauner proposed a political strategy to create a crisis that would allow cuts to social services: “I think we can drive a wedge issue in the Democratic Party on that topic and bring the folks who say, ‘You know what? For our tax dollars, I’d rather help the disadvantaged, the handicapped, the elderly, the children in poverty. I’d rather have my tax dollars going to that than the SEIU or Af-scammy (AFSCME), who are out there for their own interests.’” NPR reported in October 2015 on Rauner’s political strategy.

Although Rauner’s communication style and media presence was very different from President Trump’s, the two leaders’ billionaire backgrounds and “disruptive” agendas were similar.

President Trump has bragged that he “owns” this federal government shutdown. In December, just prior to the beginning of the shutdown, Trump threatened: “I’ll be the one to shut it down. I will take the mantle. And I will shut it down for border security.” NPR reported at the time on Trump’s comments and the breakdown of negotiations.

Trump’s willingness to engage shutdowns reflects a long-standing Republican approach to federal budgetary policy. Government shutdowns have actually been part of stated Republican political strategy ever since Newt Gingrich’s days as Speaker of the House in the 1990s. NPR provides a brief history of federal government shutdowns.

President Trump and his administration are attempting to follow former Governor Rauner’s and former Speaker Gingrich’s political strategies. As Rauner attempted to engineer a fiscal crisis in Illinois, Trump is creating a crisis over a border “wall.” Both politicians aimed to utilize a government shutdown to ram through their policy agendas, while damaging government agencies and trimming social services in the process.

The current federal government shutdown is affecting many of the same Illinois agencies, state universities, local governments, and non-governmental organizations (food banks, mental health clinics, rape crisis centers) that were severely impacted during the Illinois state government shutdown of 2015-2017. WILL reports on effects of the federal government shutdown on rape crisis centers in Illinois. WILL also has reported on how food banks are responding to the federal government shutdown.

Newly-installed Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, who has replaced former Governor Rauner, has offered financial assistance to federal workers in Illinois who are affected by the U.S. government shutdown. WQAD reports on this development.

I had a front-row seat to the Illinois government shutdown’s impact on higher education, since I served as Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Northern Illinois University during most of the Illinois government shutdown of 2015-2017. So, I am focusing here largely on the government shutdown’s impact on higher education.

State legislatures have been cutting their direct support to state universities for decades, so state universities now rely heavily on student tuition and cost-sharing between local, state, and federal governments for their core teaching and research missions.

When state or federal governments shutdown (even partially), higher education institutions suffer directly and immediately as universities cannot pay part or all of the salaries to professors, instructors, researchers, technicians, office staff, and other individuals who engage in instruction, research, and student services at public universities.

If a shutdown lasts very long, academic studies are suspended, field missions are halted, and scientific equipment is dormant. Shutdowns have the potential to disrupt research in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, law, medicine, and other fields—however news media seem to report more frequently on disruptions to scientific research. Science Magazine and Nature have both reported on the federal government shutdown’s impact on scientific research. The Daily Illini, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports on how the federal government shutdown is affecting the research supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Research offices at all research universities are closely tracking the federal government shutdown. My own university, Northern Illinois University, has posted information about the shutdown for professors, researchers, and graduate students who may deal with disruptions to their research activities.

News media across Illinois reported on the state “budget impasse” of 2015-2017 and its impact on higher education, but I would argue that the reporters really never effectively represented how the lack of state budget was affecting Illinois state universities. Nonetheless, articles such as this one from 2016 by WPSD are a good reminder of the severe scars left by the lengthy government shutdown on Illinois higher education.

These are merely preliminary reflections on the comparisons between the Illinois government shutdown of 2015-2017 and the federal government shutdown of 2018-2019. I will need to write many more posts to develop these comparisons further.  We’ll see how long the current shutdown lasts and how much time I find to write….

UPDATE: Several hours after I published this piece, President Trump has announced a temporary end of the federal government shutdown. The New York Times reports on Trump’s announcement.

This entry was posted in Current Research, Education Policy, Graduate Work in History, Humanities Education, Northern Illinois University, Political Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

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