During the government shutdown, you have heard or will hear about two main areas of concern. The first is the operation of the TSA. The second is the operation of our national parks.
Both of these highlight a very specific problem with American political life. That is the unwavering support for the accepted realities of big government. Americans go through life refusing to question certain governmental practices because things seem prudent at the time or they seem practical or they make life easier. Prudence, practicality, and ease are poor justifications for keeping government bloated.
Let us consider the TSA and the national parks.
Yesterday, Liz Mair tweeted (in response to Andrea Mitchell) that the TSA should be privatized. The TSA has been in the news because several news organizations have reported many agents were calling off sick due to the government shutdown and the lack of an upcoming paycheck. Whether or not this is a normal post-holiday occurrence is debatable, but the idea that privatizing would alleviate this problem is certainly interesting. Consider the brief history of the TSA. It’s only seventeen years old. It was created to solve the security problem that may have led to 9/11. We must ask ourselves whether the noble purpose of the agency is enough to justify its existence in light of its checkered past with security failures and the groping fiasco. Now that we see how vulnerable airport security may be during a shutdown, it requires further consideration as to whether states or the airlines themselves may be better suited to take on this role in light of new standards for security post 9/11.
This scenario is fundamentally different from the national parks and what they are dealing with. Whereas the national parks are completely under the authority of the federal government and the government is fully within its authority to shut the parks down, as was done in previous shutdowns, the TSA doesn’t own airlines. While during an emergency, airspace can be closed, it would seem asinine and probably illegal to close US airspace just because the TSA can’t guarantee its services during a government shutdown. It seems silly to hamper regular air travel because the federal government isn’t paying the bills. Privatization could help.
The far more interesting case though is the shutdown and its effects on the national parks. As mentioned above, in previous shutdowns, many parks were barricaded and closed for the duration of the shutdown. While people will rant about how Americans have a right to access their parks even amidst a shutdown, we can consider this from a different angle…why does the federal government control so much land to begin with? The news has lamented the buildup of trash and feces as well as the death of seven park visitors. It seems unlikely that the shutdown has anything to do with the deaths, people die in national parks all the time.
While there is the obvious concern regarding the ability to rescue people, we have to ask ourselves whether the current funding mechanism is sufficient. Do amusement parks charge entrance fees and then create bylaws that say that these fees can only be used for certain functions in the park? No! That would be asinine. But that is exactly what our national parks do. They rely on appropriations, instead of the fees they collect, to carry out their basic functions. The Department of Interior is just now directing fees to be used for basic operation of the parks. Incoming democrats have said “The Department of Interior is very likely violating appropriations law,” (Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.) and that the president expects taxpayers “to either pay more to keep the toilets clean out of their own pockets or pay millions of dollars for his ridiculous wall” (Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.).
Which is ironic because they are already paying billions of dollars for current management of federal lands. Depending on various outdated estimates, the US spends $10,000,000,000 a year on federal land management and according to National Geographic, the National Park Service alone has a backlog of $12,000,000,000 worth of park infrastructure projects.
And since it was news to me that the fees could not be used for regular operations and that the parks had to rely on taxes, I am now really intrigued by Ted Cruz’s idea from the 2016 primary. Cruz wanted to give federal lands to the states.
When we look to the history of how revenue bills are constructed in congress and the balance that is given to state size and sovereignty, we see an interesting but simple concept that cannot coexist with this bloated vision of federal land. There is no doubt that the federal government can own land, the Supreme Court has affirmed this, but there is nothing that dictates that it must always own certain land.
When we view states and the people of states as their own sovereign entities, we begin to wonder why the people of Iowa should pay for parks in Nevada. Why should the people in Maine contribute money for parks in Wyoming? Why should people in Oklahoma pay for a park in Michigan? A map of federally owned land reveals a striking pattern. Most federal land is in the west. Some states in the Midwest, East, and South have hardly any federally owned land. It would be one thing if each state were 5% federally owned and each state contributed a certain amount of tax revenue. It would be one thing if federally owned land and appropriations were tied to population size. But that’s not the case. We have abandoned the foundational concerns of revenue. What benefit is there to the people of Hawaii if the nation collectively owns a majority of the land in Nevada? I put very little stock in the idea that federal lands are for all Americans to enjoy. Yet we are expected to accept that notion so the people of New York, Illinois, Florida, Michigan, Connecticut, Alabama, and any other state can fund the management of land that is wholly within another state.
I understand there are historical motivations for federal land and admission of statehood, but the federal government gets to make law in this arena. It would be one thing if the Nevada Legislature tried to seize federal land. We are talking about the federal government ceding land.
If states were responsible for a bulk of the land management, these revenue concerns would be minuscule or nonexistent. The parks would not be subject to fickle national politics and possible shutdowns. Fees collected would not be limited by idiots in Washington who think that a $30 entrance fee can only be used for maps, but not removing turds from an overflowing outhouse. And who knows, if a state is having trouble managing the land, then a locality or county could assist or a private entity may step in.
Right now, the federal government is so bloated that it has regulated itself into a bind. It doesn’t know how to operate when things go wrong and it always assumes that it will be funded. That is the chief arrogance of big government. It assumes its own right to exist.
While republicans and libertarians will focus on the department of education, the IRS, and HHS, even the niceties of the federal government and the “necessities” of the federal government should still be subject to the principles of limited government and federalism.
If a small government shuts down, no one would care.