government shutdown

The Government Shutdown Is Exposing the Stupidity of Government Shutdowns

A furloughed Smithsonian contract worker who has not been paid during the partial government shutdown, holds an unpaid electric bill. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of people being forced to work without pay. Hundreds of thousands more not being allowed to work, though eventually they’ll be paid for not working. Hundreds of thousands of federal contract workers not being allowed to work, with no assurances whatsoever they’ll ever get those missed paychecks. And federal government functions, benefits, and services that are being provided, not provided, poorly provided, or half-provided according to patterns that make no intuitive sense.

That’s the world we are living in during the current partial government shutdown. And while there’s been a lot of attention paid to the pain being inflicted upon unpaid workers and those affected by unprovided services during the longest shutdown in U.S. history, it has been less noted how stupid the whole process has been, and how that may influence public perceptions of government and the people running it.

Let’s answer some of the more obvious questions about the arbitrary rules governing the shutdown and its fallout:

1) Why are some federal government agencies affected while others aren’t? The most important differentiator is whether a given function was covered by the five fiscal-year 2019 appropriations bills that were passed and signed by the president before the shutdown began on December 21. Here’s a quick explainer for separating funded sheep from unfunded goats:

Congress has enacted five appropriations bills covering three-quarters of discretionary funding. Specifically, a “minibus” of three bills addressing Energy & Water, the Legislative Branch, and Military Construction & VA was signed into law on September 21, and a second minibus addressing funding for the Department of Defense and the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Departments was signed into law on September 28.

The chief “hostage” in Trump’s battle to get his border-wall fetish satisfied was, logically enough, the Department of Homeland Security’s appropriation, which is where border security is located in the budget. But other agencies like the Treasury Department (including the IRS), the Agriculture Department (providing, among other things, food inspections), and the Interior Department (including the national parks system) have joined DHS in limbo simply because the bills covering their appropriations didn’t get finished on time. So the casualties are all over the place without any particular rhyme or reason.

2) Within agencies, why are some functions and services affected while others aren’t? Most basically, Congress has established over the years that most forms of “mandatory spending” (a.k.a. “entitlements”) will continue during government shutdowns, mostly because they are not subject to the annual appropriations that run out prior to a shutdown. Other functions and services can be deemed “essential” by agencies, which means they will be performed within existing resources. Those existing resources do not, except in rare instances, include pay for the employees performing them. It’s all a bit of a crapshoot, as McClatchy explained back in 2013:

Officially, the calls are made based on guidance issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget, which bases its recommendations, in part, on a Justice Department opinion authored in 1980 by then-President Jimmy Carter’s attorney general. That determination has been interpreted to define essential activities as those that “protect life and property.”

Pretty clear? No. Pretty dumb and subject to politically driven arbitrary judgments? Absolutely. This is how you get the Trump administration deciding that approving permits for oil drilling and sending out tax refunds are “essential” while keeping national parks open is not.

3) Who decides who works without pay and who gets furloughed? Again, that’s up to each agency subject to oversight by the president’s Office of Management and Budget. You better believe it was the White House that decided GOP credit for the 2017 tax cuts required the expeditious processing of tax refunds, to be handled by tens of thousands of IRS staff recalled from furloughs and put to work without pay. It’s a process that invites abuse and makes shutdowns more likely to drag on perpetually, as former OMB counsel Sam Berger recently pointed out:

[T]he purpose of these changes [in functions and employees deemed “essential”] is to enable Trump to prolong the shutdown. So while the government will provide important short-term relief in particular circumstances, millions of small businesses will continue to be denied access to federally backed loans, food safety inspections will continue to be curtailed and 800,000 federal workers will continue to wait for their pay, including federal law enforcement and the Secret Service officers guarding the president and first family. (And an unknown number of people who work for government contractors will continue to go without pay, as well.)

4) Why are government contractors just out of luck? By definition, people working for the federal government not as employees but as contractors and subcontractors, are treated like purchased goods or services that just don’t get purchased during a shutdown. So they weren’t included in the legislation the president just signed guaranteeing furloughed and “essential” employees back pay, even though the jobs they do are often functionally indistinguishable from those performed by peers (and often colleagues) who are on the federal payroll.

There’s no easily transparent accounting of the number of such contractors affected by the partial shutdown, but since an estimated 40 percent of the federal government’s human resources is composed of contractors, their numbers certainly run into the hundreds of thousands. A group of Democratic senators led by Minnesota’s Tina Smith has introduced legislation to require back pay for contractors, but passage by the Republican-controlled Senate and approval from Trump don’t seem likely. Again, the differential treatment of people doing similar or even identical work makes no sense and is a patent injustice.

This brief overview of arbitrary and idiotic aspects of the shutdown barely scratches the surface. Talk to anyone involved in the work affected by the situation and you will hear strange and maddening tales of appropriated dollars for grants or projects being frozen because the person authorized to release them has been furloughed, or conversely, ways clever bureaucrats have devised to circumvent the rules and keep the dollars flowing. It’s mostly a matter of willingness to skirt the law and political clout that determine a lot of what happens during this sort of shutdown.

Underlying all this stupidity, of course, is the fundamentally stupid nature of the entire shutdown saga. Despite his endless preoccupation with the subject, Donald J. Trump can’t even make up his mind what sort of border barrier he wants or how much it would cost or what he’s willing to give up to make it happen. His own people and his congressional allies don’t trust his word on what he will or won’t approve as far as they can throw it. And he stumbled into a shutdown to begin with because right-wing commentators mocked him when he tried to walk back a stupid, temper-driven boast about his willingness to take this step to get his way. With no presidential exit plan from this morass, the stupid shutdown could go on indefinitely.

Shutdowns is dumb, folks, as this one abundantly shows.

Behold the Stupidity of Government Shutdowns