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Reporting On The Shutdown, One Facebook Post At A Time
Originally published on Wed October 2, 2013 10:26 am
Shutting down the government is nothing new; Congress did it 18 years ago, suspending federal operations for three weeks.
History suggests Americans will accept the inconvenience for the duration, and Congress eventually will find a compromise.
But what if history is bunk? What if what we think we know about government shutdowns doesn't apply to this one?
The current shutdown is very different from the Clinton-era event in two important ways.
First, this government disruption stems from a profound policy disagreement: Some conservatives want to defund or delay the nation's new health care law and Democrats object. In 1995, the shutdown was tied to a simple disagreement over dollar amounts — an easier problem to solve if you are trying to meet in the middle.
And second, back in 1995, the story of the shutdown was being told by traditional media outlets. TV news shows, newspapers and magazines sent reporters out to cover the shutdown's impact. The outlets reported whatever could be learned from the reporters they could afford to pay.
But this time, the story is being covered for free by millions of Americans posting photos and comments online. On Facebook pages, people are sharing photos of themselves being turned away from national parks and walking away from empty federal offices.
Parents are using social media to fret about their college-age children getting thrown out of federal internships. Eighth-graders are using texts and Twitter to discuss the cancellation of class trips to Washington.
No government shutdown has ever been covered directly by the people, for the people. In such a radically different media environment, how will this story play out? Will the winners and losers turn out to be quite different from those whom the political experts now expect?
Is history any guide at all when the people writing that history are doing it on smartphones?
Below are just a few of the reports Tell Me More got Tuesday from average Americans. The stories people are telling each other may reshape our political debates in ways yet unimagined.
Here are their voices:
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we've all heard that old saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Is that old-fashioned? Well, one writer says it's worth a shot - actually, 300 shots. We'll hear why she's vowed to make 300 sandwiches for her boyfriend. That's in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to talk about the partial government shutdown. We've been hearing much about the 800,000 furloughed government workers, but we're already seeing the shutdown affect Americans outside of the federal government and outside of the Beltway. Early this morning, TELL ME MORE posted a social media call-out on Twitter and Facebook, and we asked how the shutdown is affecting you. We've already heard from hundreds of you from Indiana to Ohio, Colorado, Kansas City - including this message from Roberta Vogel-Leutung. She works as an ecologist for the Environmental Protection Agency in Kansas City, Missouri.
ROBERTA VOGEL-LEUTUNG: Federal employees feel really underappreciated and invisible, many of them. It just makes it all worse. It's so painful. You know, it's just really, really hard. We're doing civic work and it's important work, and we feel like - who even knows about us sometimes.
MARTIN: We actually caught up with her at her office where she was tying up loose ends getting ready for the shutdown. We're going to hear more of those stores as we continue to talk about this. But to gain some additional perspective, we're joined once again by Sudeep Reddy - economics reporter for The Wall Street Journal - and NPR business editor Marilyn Geewax. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.
MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi.
SUDEEP REDDY: Thanks.
MARTIN: Now, Marilyn, I'm going to start with you because this isn't your first government shutdown. You reported on the 1996 shutdown when the disagreements between the then Republican-led Congress and President Bill Clinton partially shuttered the federal government. But what's different today?
GEEWAX: There's really one big - really big difference, and that's that this debate today is about policy. They're really arguing about should there be Obamacare going forward or not. Back in 1996, why it seems like the old days. It was so much simpler then. They were just arguing over money. It was really a question of how much money should the government spend and on what domestic programs. So there was room for compromise where you could come up - here's your number, here's my number, let's meet in the middle. With this debate, you're really - when you're arguing policy on the back of a budget, that makes it much more complicated. And then, speaking of complicated, I think there's one other thing that's really different this time around.
When I was a reporter working on this kind of thing in '96, really, there was no social media to speak of. It was top-down reporting. Everybody looked at this from - you turn on the evening news or you picked up your newspaper to see what was happening. I think, as we've heard from the folks who have responded to us on Facebook, there's going to be a very different impact this time maybe because we've got 800,000 laid-off federal workers who, in a sense, could be reporters all reporting on their experience on various social-media platforms. And so that may change the tone of the debate as we hear from all these people.
MARTIN: And also customers - people who are customers.
MARTIN: People who are awaiting passports. People who are awaiting visa applications. The customers are also weighing about what their conditions are.
GEEWAX: I suspect that there are lots of Facebook pages right now of people at national parks, closing up their tents, you know, pulling their RVs out. People - seventh-grade classes that are here on the National Mall and can't get into a museum. So that kind of thing - it's almost unpredictable how that will change the conversation, but it could.
MARTIN: Sudeep, I think one thing that may change the conversation for some people is, I don't know that everybody - people understand how large an employer the federal government is. You know, that's thing is one. But what other thoughts do you have about this and how this is playing out?
REDDY: Marilyn's exactly right. The reason we have such a vicious political environment today is because we're fighting over much more fundamental issues, and that raises the stakes in many ways. If you think of where we are as a nation, we're four years out of a recession - a devastating recession. It's been very difficult. A lot of what Congress is arguing about is the fundamental role of government, whether it should be able to shape policy. That's why this is a fight that's about more than numbers and a budget. It's about the fundamental position of government in our lives. And that is why you've had the Tea Party rise up - a relatively small part of Congress. It would've once been a fringe, and now it's been able to leap - to spark this government shutdown because there are people who believe they're fighting on principle on an issue that really matters.
And given where we are, this is all rooted in a very weak economic environment. And you see this in all sorts of countries around the world that when you have a weak economic environment, you're going to have some political breakdowns like this.
MARTIN: We're talking to Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal and NPR business editor Marilyn Geewax. We're hearing stories about the federal government shutdown. To your point about what is the role of government, we're hearing a lot from people who are directly and indirectly affected. I'll just play this from Christopher Casazza. He's not a federal employee, but he's an immigration lawyer in Philadelphia and he works regularly with offices that are shuttered today. And he said that the action in his client's cases could be delayed as a result.
CHRISTOPHER CASAZZA: Hopefully, depending on what they're applying for - what kind of benefits they're getting - hopefully they have some sort of employment authorization. But not all of them do. Some of my clients are sitting there without any status at all in the United States, without even employment authorization, and they're the ones that are going to be affected the worst.
MARTIN: We've also heard from people, for example, in this area who own a small bed-and-breakfast who had cancellations from people who were planning to come to visit the monuments and said there's no point in my coming in anticipation of the shutdown. And the family said, we've also heard from people - two federal employee families who have kids heading off to college who are very worried about whether they're going to be able to meet those, you know, term bills come January, depending on how long the shutdown lasts. The question I have for you, Sudeep, is, do people care? I mean, is this - and I don't mean that in a superficial way - but are those kinds of stories really dispositive here since what seems to be the issue is, as you said, is philosophy.
REDDY: I think those stories do matter and they matter a lot. And those are exactly the reasons why the leadership, the Republican leadership, has been generally opposed to shutting down the government because they know it's a political loser when you see that the core functions of government start to slip away and people will get frustrated and their tensions will rise and they'll start to question that political philosophy that the Tea Party has built up.
And that's one reason why many Democrats have been so eager to allow the Republicans to push this into a shutdown environment is because it is actually a defining moment for what is the role of government. And two-and-a-half years ago, when we were first going through this shutdown debate with the rise of the Tea Party, there were a number of Democrats, including some in the White House, who wanted to spark that shutdown so they could get this out of the system early, and then have a more fundamental argument about how to tweak government instead of fighting over whether you're going to completely overhaul it, which really doesn't look like is going to happen here.
MARTIN: But, Marilyn, is there a chance that - obviously, nobody knows how long this is going to last - but will the people who aren't getting paid, as a consequence of this, will they get back pay? And will that shortfall be made up eventually?
GEEWAX: This one of those things that'll still have to be decided because, you know, back in 1996, they did get retroactive pay. Congress agreed that this was really an employer lockout. The people were innocent victims, and they paid them. But this time around, it's not so clear that Congress is going to be in the mood to hand out retroactive pay to people who didn't work. But, you know, that may be an interesting political position. But for people who today's - you know, have to pay the rent for October, it's a pretty big pressure and it's an interesting question that will have to be answered in the future because that's not decided.
MARTIN: Sudeep, are there broader economic impacts that we have not yet discussed?
REDDY: There's clearly going to be an economic impact just from the disruption in key services - things like passports, as you mentioned. There will also be some hit to confidence among businesses and consumers to see their government in dysfunction. There's a longer-term problem here that really doesn't get addressed by Congress. When you're wearing down federal workers like this - when you're basically telling a lot of them, they don't matter, what are federal workers going to do?
They're probably going to try to leave government and go into the private sector eventually. And you lose some of the people you need in these roles, whether they're environmental, financial regulation, all of these roles require people who are willing to take some of the abuse by being a government worker. And if you keep doing this, you're going to lose the people you need to run your government.
MARTIN: Marilyn, and did that happen last time?
GEEWAX: Yeah. Well, there wasn't quite the level of animosity towards all federal workers the way we've seen some really harsh statements about, you know, government bureaucrats and all that. But the other point I really wanted to make was that there are a lot of important economic reports that the government puts out. For example, at the end of this week, we were supposed to get the September jobs number. This very morning, we were supposed to have gotten a construction spending report.
All of these kinds of government reports are being shut down because there aren't the economists, the workers, to put out the data. So now - you talk about undermining financial markets, those reports really matter to people. They want to know what the job market is doing. So think about this, even if this doesn't last very long, you'll have a disruption in the September numbers, and then you're also getting to have a disruption in the October numbers. So really, markets will be flying blind without that important labor data for a couple of months.
MARTIN: Sudeep, very briefly, internationally, what are we starting to hear about reactions from customers, partners, investors, markets abroad?
REDDY: Absolute befuddlement. People don't understand how the largest economy in the world, presumably the strongest country in the world, is behaving like this. And there are some real questions about what that means for the role of the United States in the international financial markets and in a security position if we go through an episode like this and make people question whether we actually have the basic, fundamental governance ability that you would expect from more of a middle-of-the-road nation rather than the leading nation in the world.
MARTIN: Sudeep Reddy is an economics reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Marilyn Geewax is an NPR business editor. They were both kind enough to join us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. We're still on the job, right?
REDDY: We are.
MARTIN: Thank you both so much.
GEEWAX: Great to be with you.
REDDY: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.