For more than half a century, conservative voices in America have seen government as a problem to be solved rather than a method that democracies use to address public problems. Government is seen as an uncontrollable force that hurts rather than helps people. If one follows that logic, or adheres to that ideology, shutting government down is a good thing, not a bad thing. An interesting chart in a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal reports that since September 1975, there have been 16 multi-day federal government shutdowns. The longest was in 1995 and lasted 21 days. Last Friday, our art-of-the-deal president suggested that this shutdown might last months, if not years. Then again, he opined that the shutdown might be ended in a few days. What is striking about the president’s language and the record of over four decades of budget brinksmanship is that federal government shutdowns have become a routine method of political competition in the United States.
The impact of the shutdown on the public or on civil servants is minimized and even trivialized by the president. Democrats lament the shutdown’s impact but are still not willing to appear to cave in to Trump’s seemingly non-negotiable demands. Democrats refuse to fund “the wall” and the president refuses to fund the government unless he gets money for the wall. For the president, “the wall” is just a vehicle; the real aim is for the Trump brand to dominate the media with a message designed by Trump. His deepest fear is that his presidency might be ended by a series of investigations that may have begun with Bob Mueller but will certainly now pick up steam due to the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. By closing the government, congressional oversight hearings, investigations, and an agenda beyond the president’s ability to influence can be temporarily deferred while everyone focuses on the crisis manufactured by federal dysfunction and the president’s erratic maneuvering. The shutdown will eventually end because Trump knows his news cycles. He realizes that people will grow bored with the wall fight and soon he’ll need a new distraction to keep his opponents off balance.
Meanwhile, back at the government ranch, the impact of a partially closed government is starting to become visible. It begins with garbage and security issues at national parks, continues with key federal reports delayed and data collection interrupted, and then starts to hit home as Transportation Security Administration staff begin to call in sick. Many of the people who scan your luggage at airports live paycheck-to-paycheck and are looking for temporary work to provide the money they need to pay the rent and feed their families. If the shutdown continues, these unpaid “essential” workers will have no choice but to find other sources of income.
The impact of weaponizing the budget process can only impair whatever is left of the effectiveness of America’s national government. It is not only federal workers that are harmed by this shutdown, but as public management expert Paul Light will tell you, the many contractors and grantees that are paid by federal funds are also affected. Since the Reagan era, the number of federal government employees has largely stopped growing, while the number of federal contractors has expanded dramatically. This is largely a function of population and economic growth. Our nation of 327 million people in 2018 generated more demand for services than our nation of 226 million people did back in 1980. A recent piece in the Washington Post cited a study by Professor Light. According to Kimberly Kindy, Lisa Rein and Joel Achenbach:
“Contractors — including security guards, suppliers and researchers — form a vast shadow government and must abide by byzantine regulations about whether and how to continue operations during a funding shortfall. The contractors have expanded in size and power in recent decades in a push by small-government conservatives to outsource federal functions to the private sector. Four out of every 10 people who work for the federal government are private contractors, according to 2017 research by New York University professor Paul C. Light.”
State and local governments also depend on federal funds and so a multi-month shutdown could have a ripple effect throughout government, the private sector and the entire economy. It is hard to believe that the shutdown could last for more than a month, but we seem to be in an era where precedent and history seem oddly beside the point. I keep thinking the situation in Washington has finally hit the bottom, but then something even stranger and more destructive takes place.
I started my professional career in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in part due to the call to public service I first heard articulated by President John F. Kennedy. I was inspired by his call to “ask not what your country can do for you ― ask what you can do for your country.” I was eager to be part of EPA’s mission, an agency that was only seven years old when I first worked for it. It was filled with smart, dedicated people determined to improve America’s environmental quality. Nearly fifty years after its creation, EPA’s dedicated public servants have helped create a cleaner environment than the one we had in 1970. When I left EPA to join the public administration faculty at Columbia University, I encouraged my students to consider federal service. For many years, despite the roller coaster of shutdowns and dysfunction, I continued to consult for EPA and suggest that students think about the excitement of starting their career as I did, in Washington, D.C. As the environmental sustainability action shifted to states, cities, nonprofits and corporations, my attention shifted as well, but I tried to avoid discouraging those interested in the federal government.
No longer. Today I actively discourage my students from working for the federal government. It saddens me, but between shutdowns, climate denial, and hyper-partisan dysfunction, it would be irresponsible to advise anyone in the field of sustainability to consider federal service. It deeply troubles me to have come to this point, but this latest shutdown only reinforces my perception that America does not respect its federal workforce. Government workers have been reduced to pawns in political gamesmanship. The president makes up stories about former presidents and government workers urging him to stand firm in his fight for wall funding. All this in his so far successful effort to dominate news cycle after news cycle. People may question President Trump’s fitness to serve as president, but no one can deny his genius at self-promotion and messaging.
The Trumpian publicity stunts seem unending. It started with the Muslim ban. It continued with the policy of separating migrant children from their parents. More recently it included sending troops to the southern border to combat unarmed migrants. And now the spectacle of a government shutdown. Perhaps soon he will create a constitutional crisis by using his executive authority to declare an emergency and build the wall with funding allocated to national defense.
Americans may distrust government and other large organizations, but we need them. The anti-government ideology is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The right-wing philosophy of “starving the (government) beast” of resources has the effect of reducing government’s capacity to deliver services. As we learn during emergencies and as we learn when government is shut down, in a complex, interconnected economy there are some functions that only government can perform. Building infrastructure, providing emergency services, maintaining social safety nets, and ensuring public safety require an open and capable government. Not the closed, disrespected, and poorly led national government America is now stuck with.