The shutdown shows that Americans ordinarily do extraordinary things

Published October 12, 2013 1:01 am
The Washington Post
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Last Sunday, Rapid City, S.D., was reeling from a blizzard of historic proportions. The meteorologist-in-chief at the National Weather Service's office there, David Carpenter, was on the job, though he wasn't being paid, in a city paralyzed by snowdrifts and fallen trees. He and two other forecasters had been at work continuously since Friday.

The government shutdown, and the threat of government default, are an embarrassment and a disgrace. But there is a silver lining: Americans are being reminded of how much we depend on government — and on federal employees, such as Carpenter, who do extraordinary things in the ordinary course of their days.

When Congress failed to fund the government 10 days ago, the executive branch ordered most employees to work, because they are essential to the preservation of life and property. But hundreds of thousands were furloughed and many more contract employees sidelined, and the absence of these supposedly less essential workers quickly became a burden. When an outbreak of salmonella sickened hundreds, the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to be recalled. The inability to access government data began to gum up the housing market. At the National Institutes of Health, Michelle Langbehn, a Califorinia cancer patient with a daughter born last year, was turned away from a clinical trial that might save her life. "It would mean the world for me to see my daughter grow up," she told The Washington Post.

As injustices surface, generous Americans fill the gap. The Fisher House Foundation offers to pay death benefits to families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. A wealthy couple, Laura and John Arnold, donate $10 million to keep some Head Start programs operating through the month. Chris Cox, an artist from South Carolina, tries to mow the lawn around the Lincoln Memorial, until police chase him away.

Much of the harm being done, though, won't surface in the media. The babies who are getting insufficient nutrition because the Women, Infants and Childrenprogram has been suspended — they won't feature in newspaper stories. As the Head Start philanthropists said, "We sincerely hope that our government gets back to work in short order, as private dollars cannot in the long term replace government commitments."

Maneuvering in Washington on Thursday focused on the nation avoiding a default on its debt, and a default would be more dangerous than the shutdown. But that can't obscure the irresponsibility of House Republicans cavalierly allowing government to go unfunded. What makes America exceptional to a large extent is the exceptional Americans who perform public service. They deserve better from the so-called public servants in Congress.

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