Looming Government Shutdown Reminds Us Congress Is Not a Business

Unlike a business, the government can’t pick and choose which customers to target.


It’s become common to bash large public institutions with the phrase, "if I ran my business the way they run [government/public schools/whatever], I’d be bankrupt."

Maybe so. But Congress and law making are not businesses (the high-cost business of campaigning and lobbying aside). And public schools are not businesses, either.

Still there’s a tendency to think that putting corporate executives or small business owners in leadership positions at public institutions will somehow make those entities profitable or successful. That accounts for the election of some businesspeople to Congress, and the appointment of former magazine magnate Cathie Black as New York City schools chancellor. [See political cartoons about the budget and the deficit.]

Just a few months after her appointment by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Black is out. It was hardly a surprise, her approval rating among city residents had been an anemic 17 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released last month. She had made some foolish comments, such as suggesting that birth control was the solution to schools overcrowding, and she upset some parents with her proposal to install an "elite" new high school inside an existing Park Slope high school.

Black had no education experience, which might have contributed to her troubles. She may be great at bottom-line decisions, but such calculations are nearly impossible in a public school. You can’t fire your students to improve your graduation rate. You can call a school "failing" for not reaching certain testing standards, but the school can’t do anything about the challenges--such as poverty, substance abuse in the home, or language barriers--that make certain student populations more difficult to teach.

And ironically, the business model on Wall Street doesn’t follow the market approach being imposed on schools. Financial big-wigs who helped run the economy into the ground got big bonuses, despite their poor performance. Their businesses weren’t closed for incompetence; they were given government bailouts. There is indeed an argument to be made that letting those businesses fail would have done tremendous damage to innocent parties, such as people whose IRAs are dependent on the performance of stocks over which they have no control. So why are schools not given the same "business" courtesy?

The same goes for the federal budget. Sure, one couldn’t run a business budget in the same way. But then, the government can’t fire Social Security recipients. It can’t--not without planning and consensus--decide to shutter "underperforming" enterprises such as the Afghan war. The government is meant to take care of everyone, to some degree, and unlike a business, the government can’t pick and choose which customers to target. [See 10 effects of a government shutdown.]

As stubbornness in Congress threatens a government shutdown, lawmakers tethered to a business model approach should remember their roles. A CEO or small business owner can dictate; a House member is one of 435 and must accept the needs and perspectives of the rest of the chamber. Businesses can price items high enough to cut out low-income consumers. Government has an obligation--though to what degree is a valid discussion--to protect the neediest. Having former businesspeople in Congress provides a valuable perspective in a diverse institution. But Congress is not a business.

  • See 10 effects of a government shutdown.
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