Truly 'Essential' Government Services

The cutting of military death benefits is just one more tragic result of the shutdown.

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A military honor guard lowers the casket of Army Spc. Camy Florexil, 23, of Philadelphia, who was killed in Baghdad in July, during funeral services at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Friday, Oct. 5, 2007

It gives a tragic new meaning to the term "death tax." Families whose sons, daughters, husbands, wives and parents lost their lives in Afghanistan are now being denied the benefits traditionally given to defray the cost of funerals and travel costs to retrieve the remains. The funding cutoff, first reported by NBC News, is due to the government shutdown, which has stopped all but "essential government services.

The House is set to pass a special bill restoring that cash. It's unclear what the Senate will do. While expenditures involving the troops – especially fallen troops – are sacrosanct to lawmakers in both parties, Democrats have been loath to approve what they view as a GOP policy of releasing one hostage at a time while politicians fight over whether and how to reopen the government.

But the gut-wrenching impact on military families does serve one purpose. It reminds people of what their government does.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the government shutdown.]

The understandable discontent with Washington has ballooned into a disgust with government of any kind, and a rejection of anything that has the word "government attached to it. And it's easy to point to government programs that may be bloated or outdated, or regulations that may do more harm than good.

But government programs are not just the big things – Social Security and national defense, for example – or even the smaller, but more controversial things, such as foreign aid or food stamps. It's stuff like death benefits for families who have lost loved ones in conflicts they had nothing to do with authorizing. It's things like payment for the Women, Infants and Children program – something that may be a budget item for those lucky enough not to need it, but which represents a life necessity for poor pregnant women and mothers.

We don't all benefit directly from every single government program. They're there because they represent  who we are – a nation that cares for its own, whether it's hungry people or a family who needs to bury a servicemember.

Lawmakers can certainly debate the structure or funding level of such programs; that is, of course, their job. But it's important to remember that much of what government does seems invisible – not because it's not working, but because it is working.

Give LIHEAP assistance to low-income people who can't afford to heat their homes, and it can appear to a hardline fiscal conservative like the aid is not doing any good. But take it away, and have an elderly person freeze to death in her home, and suddenly, the program seems useful. The National Transportation Safety Board might seem like just another government bureaucracy. But when a deadly bus crash occurred in Tennessee, and a Metro worker was killed while doing repair work over the weekend in Washington, D.C., the absence of a functioning NTSB becomes more evident. Sometimes, the value of government programs is the absence of disaster and pain. Military families are just one casualty of trying to function with almost no government at all.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: How Debt Ceiling Deniers Are Reinforcing Voter Ignorance
  • Read Peter Roff: No, the Tea Party Is Not to Blame for the Shutdown
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