The Government Takes a Holiday


We expect that certain organizations, businesses, or professions will be hard at work when the rest of us are celebrating important holidays like Arbor Day by taking the day off and sleeping until noon.  Police, health care providers, newspapers—and, assumedly, some form of government keeping its eye on us.

Granted, Chicago gets an occasional parking meter holiday (on holidays when nearly the all shops and offices are closed anyway and nobody drives downtown), and it’s only an extreme emergency that forces mayors of small towns to govern at 4 a.m.  But we government never gets a day off.

Or does it?  Full government shutdowns tend to be the exclusive domain of small but politically cantankerous nations.   Except for a few extraordinary cases, American governments—Federal, state, or local—tend to be pretty much, well, there.  However, before we become too complacent, let’s consider a few cases when nobody was in charge of large and politically cantankerous nations like the U.S.

Perhaps the most famous example of a Federal government shutdown was in December 1995.  Congress failed to agree on a budget for fiscal year 1996.  Deadlines were missed, fingers were pointed, concerned expressions were assumed by politicians on Meet the Press, and American consumers briefly looked up from our holiday shopping to wonder what exactly the deal was.

The deal was not that the government was suspended—but only that whatever government officials were hard at work on New Year’s Eve had only the slimmest authority to spend government money.  But nobody really expected the country to fall apart, and in practice the inertia of government is such that we all went about our business as if the inevitable return of government was right around the corner.

It was.  By the start of the New Year, when Americans were so sick of eating cheese logs that even thinking about a cheese log made us kind of woozy, and we seriously couldn’t remember why drinking all that Amaretto seemed like a good idea—because we couldn’t remember the last time we drank Amaretto at all, much less half a bottle—we turned our attention back to the budget crisis with a fresh optimism born of not being seriously aware of the problem before this.  But we were now aware and irritated at the seeming failure of the government to do its job, and also a little bit because we were still kind of bloated from the cheese logs.

A mere ten years later, the state government of Minnesota shut down for two weeks in July 2005 until a budget dispute could be resolved.  A mere five months after that, American grumblings about paying our share to the United Nations were enough to raise speculation over a UN shutdown.  In other words, these things happen.  But Minnesota’s still here, so is the UN, and you still have to pay your parking tickets.

So we’ve established that, generally speaking, what we most often see is merely a government that runs into a temporary slowdown, but not a complete absence of government.  Fine, but what happens if there’s a government with nobody in charge?

The most famous American example is the alleged one-day reign of President David Rice Atchison.  President James Polk’s term ending on midnight on Saturday, March 3, 1849; his successor, Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn in on Sunday.  So everyone was sworn in on Monday instead and, in theory, Sunday came and went without an elected president or vice president.

The Vice President is, of course, the relief pitcher of the Executive Branch.  But with no Vice President in office, the complex system of presidential succession would have designated the President Pro Tempore of the Senate as next in line.  This office was filled by Senator Atchison.

A thriving fan base of support has built for Senator Atchison’s brief term in office; his grave marker even reads “President of the United States for One Day.”  Fine, except that Mr. Atchison wasn’t sworn in as president and made no apparent move to assume power.

In fact, he wasn’t really President Pro Tempore of the Senate over the weekend anyway.  At that time, that office was sworn in every year just like the President.  Senator Atchison wasn’t sworn in as P.P.T. until Monday the 5th—only a few minutes before the Vice President and President were sworn in.  So if Atchison had the job for a couple minutes, then so did the Vice President, who according to custom took office before the President.   By extension, every Veep who is sworn in before the Prez is effectively President for a few minutes.  Granting Atchison a term as President suggests that we should extend the same courtesy to a couple dozen other guys, including President Dan Quayle.

So why has the Atchison-as-President theory captured the public imagination?  First, it’s a great story, with a (sort of) little guy getting his shot at the big time.  Second, there’s undeniable humor.  Atchison is widely quoted as summing up his term with this inspiring call to action:  “I went to bed.”  Atchison explained that “there had been two or three busy nights finishing up the work of the Senate, and I slept most of that Sunday.”  He later bragged that his was the most honest administration on record.

But most importantly, it’s easier to deal with Atchison-as-President than to face the unnerving truth—the rules regarding presidential succession were so vague that even today it’s not clear who was in charge.  The Constitution grants the government the power to designate an effective succession plan, and despite several attempts to get things cleared up there are still a lot of things that aren’t clear even today.

For example, can the new President be from a different political party?  Republican President Nixon served without a vice president for several months in late 1973.  According to a byzantine set of rules, Democrat House Speaker Carl Albert was only a heartbeat away from the office.  Speaker Albert nobly declared that since the public wanted a Republican in office, he would only serve as Acting President (not President) if something happened to President Nixon.  Futher, he said he would serve only until a Republican Vice President was chosen by Congress.  Of course, the new Vice President would then become President, because he or she (okay, he) would have ranked higher than Speaker Albert, except there would already have been a President, or at least an Acting President, which is an office that doesn’t actually appear in the Constitution, and anyway this new Vice President/President Elect would not have been directly elected by the people, unlike Speaker Albert… you can see why Constitutional law experts heaved a sigh of relief when Gerald Ford became Vice President.

And what if the next in line doesn’t technically qualify to be President?  Two foreign-born American citizens are on the list of succession circa January 2006.  It’s assumed that those Cabinet members would be skipped.

Since the list is widely available, I won’t repeat it here; suffice it to say that it includes 17 people, with legislation afoot to add the Secretary of Homeland Security as the 18th.  Well, it’s not actually that simple:  debate rages over whether this hard-charging expert on crisis management would be more effective than Secretaries of slightly more esoteric duties, or whether Newbie should just pipe down and get in the back of the line.

So what if, instead of having a government with no money, or a government with nobody in charge, we had no government at all?

Somalia has been operating without a formal government since the early 1990’s.  In the meantime, Somali currency (the shilling) keeps on rolling without such formalities as a central bank.  Business still happens, people still get married, and the balance of power between rival warlords has seemingly settled into a sort of order.  But before anarchists point to Somalia as Example A, let’s also remember that Somali pirates are the scourge of regional shipping; the mobile phone tower you got to build without a license could be disassembled by anyone willing to buy off your security force; and Somalis are forced to either deal with a bloody and constant state of war between warlords, complete with kidnappings, extortion, and murder, or to accept the inevitable nightmare of a civil war that would explode if any formal government tried to exert its powers.

So in the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s good that we all honor Mr. Atchison’s one-day Presidency if it helps assure us that we’re not a constitutional technicality away from anarchy in the U.S.

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