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What Happens When the Government Shuts Down?

The downside to pervasive permitting

  • Jonathan Wood
  • Denali National Park

    One of the lessons of the recent government shutdown (and expected near miss on a second one) is that there are significant downsides to relying too much on government regulation to provide environmental amenities.

    The most visible example of this is the national park system, which have long been a political football in shutdown fights. When the President has the political upper hand, shutting down the parks can put political pressure on his congressional opponents; and vice versa with keeping them open.

    As Shawn Regan writes in Outside Magazine, it’s past time to learn this lesson and get politics out of our parks:

    The partisan gamesmanship over our national parks should make one thing clear: it’s time to get politics out of our parks. As a former park ranger, I know how politics can pervade parks and undermine the ability of local managers to sustain and protect them. Instead of politicizing our parks, we should be looking for ways to make them less vulnerable to Washington’s budget fights and ensure that they cannot be used as pawns to advance the agenda of any administration, whether Democrat or Republican.

    Simply put, that means making parks less dependent on unreliable congressional appropriations. Today the National Park Service counts on Congress for the vast majority of its funding, yet Congress is notoriously stingy with park funding, regardless of which party is in control. This lack of funding has led to operational shortfalls and a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion—four times the agency’s annual budget.

    Another, less visible environmental consequence of a shutdown is that most federal permitting grinds to a halt. That wouldn’t be so bad in a society that has adopted what Timothy Sandefur refers to as “the nuisance model,” in which people are generally free to act unless they harm someone else (which can be punished after-the-fact). In such a society, a temporary government shutdown need not be terribly disruptive, since enforcement can resume once the government reopens and life can carry on in the meantime.

    But in a “permission society” like ours, a dysfunctional permitting system can be extremely disruptive. Many environmental regulations require federal permission slips, regardless of whether the activity is likely to have a net-negative effect on the environment. For instance, the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act require federal permits for almost any activity involving a regulated water or species, respectively, regardless of whether the activity is harmful.

    Thus, a Clean Water Act permit is not only required for polluting a stream, but also stabilizing a stream bank to reduce erosion. An Endangered Species Act permit is not only necessary to hunt rare wildlife, but also to relocate it to improved habitat. In fact, there’s reason to believe that most activities affected by these permit requirements are innocuous or beneficial. A Defenders of Wildlife study found that, of more than 88,000 Endangered Species Act consultations completed between 2008 and 2015, precisely zero were determined to involve activities likely to jeopardize protected species or adversely modify their habitat. That doesn’t mean that all of these activities were beneficial, of course, but suggests that there are costs from blocking activity that may be easily overlooked.

    In the best of cases, permit requirements that extend to innocuous or beneficial activities impose significant transaction costs (expense and time lost to navigating the red tape).  But where there’s no bureaucrat to issue those permits, those costs (at least temporarily) become infinite. Better focusing permit requirements or shifting responsibility to states would mitigate this impact of government shutdowns.

    Written By
    • Jonathan Wood
      • Vice President of Law & Policy

      Jonathan Wood is vice president of law and policy at PERC, leading PERC’s Conservation Law and Policy Center.

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