Opinion: Devastating costs of government shutdown

Marick F. Masters

Although the country finally gets a three-week break from its longest government shutdown, an increasing number of Americans had felt some of the pain immediately inflicted on the 800,000 federal employees, 420,000 of whom were working without pay.

Furloughed EPA worker Jeff Herrema holds a sign outside the offices of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, in Park Hills, Ky., Tuesday, Jan 22, 2019.

The funding gap forced many governmental offices to close, delayed important services, idled federal contractors and their employees, and inconveniences many who awaited approvals for loans, patents, tariff exceptions, and civil litigation.

The shutdown cost billions in disrupted economic activity and expensive make-shift arrangements made to adjust to massive furloughs. But the real costs are much deeper and corrosive.

Shutdowns result from funding gaps in which lawmakers fail to appropriate the money necessary to pay for government. The Constitution prohibits the federal government from issuing payments without duly enacted appropriations. An inability to pay necessitates a shutdown. Typically, funding gaps occur when the executive and legislative branches are at a policy-making stalemate, such as the impasse between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders over appropriating money for the border wall. The most recent former shutdown occurred in early 2018, while the second longest shutdown (21 days) occurred in December 1995-January 1996.

The immediate direct and indirect costs of the shutdown occur in four related ways.

First, lost wages of furloughed employees reduce consumer spending, which is a key driver of economic activity. Though lawmakers have authorized back pay for these employees, a good deal of the retroactive compensation is for time not working.

Second, literally thousands of routine government operations are interrupted, delaying important transactions which await government approval. Other activities such as air traffic control are slowed because of shutdown-related staffing shortages, and airlines lose a lot of revenue because of reductions in air travel among federal employees. At the same time, many user fees go uncollected at closed facilitates.

Third, federal contractors and their employees go unpaid, stalling various projects, which leads to cost overruns.

Fourth, slowdowns in food inspections, environmental regulation enforcement and the provision of health care put many at risk, threatening public health and safety.

But perhaps even more significant is the continuing erosion in public confidence in government occasioned by a lengthy shutdown. The shutdown of government because of political intransigence and polarization contributes to the further erosion in the already low level of confidence in government and democratic institutions. The nonchalant and cavalier reaction to the shutdown manifests a passive acceptance that closing government is an acceptable price to pay for policy disagreements.

Whether we agree with the current scope of government or not, lawmakers should live up to the commitments made to provide the goods and services obligated under lawfully enacted programs and policies. Disagreements over fiscal policy, spending on domestic or defense-related programs, or a border wall should not justify any government shutdown.

It is unconscionable to demand “essential” federal employees — public servants — go to work without pay, even if back pay is assured. If workers are essential, they deserve to be paid.

The American people must demand an end to the vitriol, incivility, excessive partisanship, and unrestrained histrionics displayed in Washington. It is within our power to insist that lawmakers reopen the government while they continue debating the wall or any other significant policy.

Lawmakers should amend the Congressional Budget Control and Impoundment Act to provide for the continued funding of government at current levels until long-term appropriations are enacted. Congress would have to authorize explicitly a government shutdown under the regular legislative process.

Shutdowns and prolonged deadlocks, including over matters such as raising the public debt when needed to meet our obligations, should not be the new normal. We should demand a much higher level of integrity and effectiveness in governing.

Marick F. Masters is a professor of business at Wayne State University.