A federal “shutdown” isn’t really a shutdown – but it does harm science and society


If there is a federal “shutdown” after March 18 due to an impasse over continuing 2011 government funding, science and society will be harmed – but federal workers will continue to provide so many broadly-defined “emergency” services that voters and politicians will be shielded in the short run from the consequences of their irresponsible choices.

With talk of a possible U.S. government “shutdown” if Congress and the White House don’t resolve the current conflict over continuing appropriations for the balance of fiscal year 2011, it’s important to understand a bit about what a “shutdown” might entail, and what it would not.

The last Congress, through 2010, failed to enact fiscal year 2011 (through September 30, 2011) appropriations bills covering the “discretionary” portion of the federal budget. As it departed, the last Congress left behind a “continuing resolution” allowing federal agencies to continue to operate through March 4 at the fiscal 2010 level of funding. That level is significantly below the total requested by the President in his fiscal 2011 budget request. Now Congress has passed, and the President has signed, a two-week extension of the continuing resolution, through March 18, without resolving any of the key 2011 spending issues on which Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads.

In November 2010, U.S. voters elected a Republican majority in the House of Representatives that has sought to use the absence of full-year appropriations to force draconian cuts of an additional $60 billion in domestic programs to be implemented during the remaining 6-plus months of the current fiscal year. Domestic “discretionary” spending amounts to a fraction of the total federal budget. $60 billion would significantly affect science, education, and other societal priorities without touching other components of the large budget deficit.

On essentially party-line votes, the House majority rammed through budget cuts and targeted amendments, much of which were driven by ideology and corporate priorities, aimed selectively at eliminating or undermining programs that are unpopular with the right-wing. The Senate Democratic majority and the White House have refused to accept these cutbacks (so far, at least – we shall see). If there is no agreement on something by March 18, the federal government will “shut down.”

The New York Times editorialized on February 28:

The threat of a shutdown is a serious one. Once the stopgap measure now supplying money to the federal government expires, hundreds of thousands of workers would be furloughed, halting vital services like veterans’ health care and passport processing, and possibly slowing the distribution of benefit checks. Essential services would continue, but the impact on a fragile recovery could be devastating.

None of that has in the slightest deterred House Republicans — the fire-breathing freshmen and the older members who are afraid of them — from pursuing their single-minded goal of disemboweling the government.

They took advantage of the Democrats’ failure to pass a budget last year and approved a bill that makes nearly $62 billion in cuts just over the next seven months. Much of the effort pursued longstanding partisan goals like eliminating programs for disadvantaged minorities, rather than real deficit reduction.

The impact of these reckless, largely ideologically targeted cuts could be even more devastating for the recovery than a brief government shutdown. Hundreds of thousands of people would lose their jobs, and not just for a few days or weeks. Those at the bottom of the economic ladder would be hurt the most. …

Let’s make an educated guess about some of the specifics of what would likely happen in a shutdown, based on what the Congressional Research Service says in a recent report to lawmakers (Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Process, and Effects, February 18, 2011), and on the government guidelines that have been in effect since thte 1980s and that guided the two most recent shutdowns, in fiscal 1996. The CRS report says:

When federal agencies and programs lack appropriated funding, they experience a funding gap. Under the Antideficiency Act, they must cease operations, except in emergency situations. Failure of the President and Congress to reach agreement on interim or full-year funding measures occasionally has caused government shutdowns, the longest of which lasted 21 days, from December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996. Government shutdowns have necesssitated furloughs of several hundred thousand federal employees, required cessation or reduction of many government activities, and affected numerous sectors of the economy…

The Antideficiency Act governing shutdowns generally prohibits agencies from continued operation in the absence of appropriations, but makes exceptions for “emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” Congress amended the Act in 1990 to clarify that the term “emergencies … does not include ongoing, regular functions of government the suspension of which would not imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

However, the CRS report indicates that, according to federal guidelines established in the 1980s, which essentially defined the terms of government action during the fiscal 1996 shutdowns, a very wide range of governmental activities would continue. If the Obama administration were to follow previous practice, the net result would be that the administration would act to keep most citizens from feeling any direct and immediately painful impacts of a shutdown. Thus:

National security-related activities would continue, including the conduct of foreign relations related to national security or the safety of life and property. U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere would continue. Soldiers at home and abroad would be fed, clothed, armed, and transported.

Citizens would presumably continue to receive their Social Security checks, Medicare reimbursements, veterans benefits, and other federal benefit payments. (Processing of new applications to receive benefits or other services could be delayed.)

Government-funded hospitals and emergency medical centers would continue to function.

Government activities related to the safety of food, drugs, and hazardous materials management would continue.

Air traffic controllers would stay on the job, planes would continue to fly, and other safety-related transportation functions would continue, including airport screeners for the Transportation Security Administration.

Border and coastal protection, surveillance, and enforcement functions would continue.

Protection of federal lands, buildings, waterways, equipment and other property owned by the United States would continue.

Federal prisons would continue to operate.

Federal courts, law enforcement, and criminal investigations would continue to function.

Intelligence gathering would continue.

Federal emergency and disaster assistance would continue.

The National Weather Service would continue to provide weather forecasts.

Activities related to “essential” elements of the U.S. money and banking system, including government borrowing and tax collection activities, would continue. (Citizens would presumably still be expected to file their taxes. Calls to the IRS tax help line may go unanswered. Refund checks could be delayed, as tax processors are likely to be among those who are furloughed.)

The new Treasury Department offices dealing with economic recovery and financial oversight would presumably continue to function.

Activities related to electric power production and distribution would continue.

Many thousands of contractors employed by military and civilian agencies – especially those providing building security and technical support for federal websites, e-mail systems and databases – would probably keep working to ensure continuity of operations.

Post offices would remain open and mail would be delivered.

In all, probably more than three-fourths of the 4 million federal employees (if we include the armed services and the postal service) would probably be kept on the job under a broad interpretation of “emergency” needs. Nevertheless, a very wide range of activities performed by federal professionals that serve the public interest would be curtailed. (Although hundreds of thousands of federal employees would be sent home, based on past practice, they would all be paid back-wages for the time away from work once the shutdown was ended. So taxpayers would not save any money on payroll, while foregoing the benefits of a wide range of federal programs.)

In effect, voters can elect politicians who play a game of ‘chicken’ in threatening to shut down the government if their demands for draconian budget cuts are not met, and neither most of the voters nor the politicians will necessarily face any painful direct consequences for the harm done by their actions in provoking a shutdown.

Many, many government activities, including scientific research and environmental protection (to cite a few categories of activity not at random), would be set back each day of a shutdown. But except for those who are attuned to the public goods advanced by these federal “discretionary” activities, most citizens would not notice much of a day-to-day difference.

This is a concern. A “shutdown” that is not really a shutdown and continues to provide federal services that affect the daily lives of Americans could be used to spin up a bogus argument that much of what government does is unnecessary. During the last shutdown, some right-wing politicians said demagogic negative things about government employees, i.e., along the lines of ‘Oh, did the government shut down? Who noticed? Who cares?’ – while knowing full well that the Clinton administration was keeping much of the government functioning in spite of Congress’s actions.

The Washington Post noted on March 2 that:

[T]here is one area where a shutdown would have greater consequences this time around: Federal spending on contracting has ballooned from a few billion dollars in 1995 to $535 billion last year. Small and midsize firms relying on government work to survive – the same small businesses the Obama administration hopes to protect with its economic recovery plans – have no guarantee that Congress would reimburse them for time lost. No retroactive pay means hundreds of thousands of contractors could go weeks without a paycheck.

And the suspension of various government services did affect Americans in numerous ways during the fiscal1996 shutdowns, according to the Congressional Research Service. A few examples:

Health. New patients were not accepted into clinical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) clinical center; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ceased disease surveillance; hotline calls to NIH concerning diseases were not answered; and toxic waste clean-up work at 609 sites reportedly stopped and resulted in 2,400 Superfund workers being sent home.

Law Enforcement and Public Safety. Delays occurred in the processing of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives applications by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; work on more than 3,500 bankruptcy cases reportedly was suspended; cancellation of the recruitment and testing of federal law-enforcement officials reportedly occurred, including the hiring of 400 border patrol agents; and delinquent child-support cases were delayed.

Parks, Museums, and Monuments. Closure of 368 National Park Service sites (loss of 7 million visitors) reportedly occurred, with loss of tourism revenues to local communities; and closure of national museums and monuments (reportedly with an estimated loss of 2 million visitors) occurred. [Animals were still fed and cared for at the National Zoo.]

Visas and Passports. Approximately 20,000-30,000 applications by foreigners for visas reportedly went unprocessed each day; 200,000 U.S. applications for passports reportedly went unprocessed; and U.S. tourist industries and airlines reportedly sustained millions of dollars in losses.

American Veterans. Multiple services were curtailed, ranging from health and welfare to finance and travel.

Federal Contractors. Of $18 billion in Washington, DC, area contracts, $3.7 billion (over 20%) reportedly were affected adversely by the funding lapse; the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) was unable to issue a new standard for lights and lamps that was scheduled to be effective January 1, 1996, possibly resulting in delayed product delivery and lost sales; and employees of federal contractors reportedly were furloughed without pay.

And as for climate research? A few preliminary observations:

Space.com reported on March 2 (“How Would a Government Shutdown Affect NASA?”):

NASA, which is currently managing the space shuttle Discovery’s final mission to the International Space Station. Discovery launched Feb. 24, carrying six astronauts on an 11-day voyage. The crew is not set to return to Earth until March 8.

Even if the federal government does shut down, all NASA workers considered essential to the mission would stay on, so Discovery wouldn’t end up stranded in space….

NASA scientists and researchers analyzing data beamed back from the space agency’s numerous space probes [including the array of Earth-orbiting remote-sensing satellites that are collecting esssential data on climate and global environmental change] would probably have to go home.

Climate Wire reported (subscription required) on February 28 (“For climate-related agencies, risk of a shutdown triggers some dismal memories”):

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half the agency’s 12,000 employees were allowed to remain on the job during the 1995-1996 shutdowns.

“The biggest piece of NOAA is the weather service, and basically we considered weather forecasts and monitoring to be an essential government function,” said D. James Baker, who ran NOAA from 1993 to 2001 and now directs the Clinton Foundation’s Global Carbon Measurement Program. “I’m almost certain we did not keep the administrative people, but all of the weather forecasters and people who work on weather satellites and space weather satellites stayed on.”

That doesn’t mean the shutdown was smooth sailing for the oceans agency. Although satellites, weather stations and other monitoring equipment continued to collect weather and climate data, climate research ground to a halt….

And here’s something the Koch brothers and other corporate anti-environmental-regulation interests will like so much that it might almost be seen as a not-so-hidden agenda driving the threat of a federal shutdown:

[In 1995-1996] the vast majority of the 18,000 employees on EPA’s payroll could not set foot on the premises….


In the agency’s regional offices, it was a similar scene. “Virtually nothing was going on in those offices,” said Hansen. “Most of the permitting authorities are authorized or delegated to the states, and they couldn’t do much without their staff,” he said. …

EPA’s shutdown brought permitting activities — which were largely performed at local and regional offices — to a grinding halt, so that construction could not move forward, three former top EPA officials said in interviews. …

One senior manager of EPA research explained that bench scientists were mostly barred from performing their work unless it involved live animals that needed to be tended. …

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1 Response to A federal “shutdown” isn’t really a shutdown – but it does harm science and society

  1. Sarah Albright says:

    It will cause very serious consequences to have a shutdown of all the government agencies that are not providing “emergency” services or those that are considered vital. However, if we don’t have the money to fund them, they have to be shut down. What’s the alternative? Close down the prisons? Stop providing emergency health care to those who can’t pay for it? These services are essential to our everyday lives and we can’t continue to bill future generations for the services we require but can’t pay for. Unfortunately, future generations will inherit the earth as we leave it, and these shutdowns almost guarantee that we will leave a bigger mess for them to deal with.

    Making drastic reductions to the scale of the war in Afghanistan is one proposed solution for our budget shortfalls. Some believe that it is frivolous to continue to fund such an expensive overseas operation that even military experts can’t guarantee will improve American’s safety or the standing of the United States among the nations of the world. I tend to disagree with this solution.

    One of the biggest and most solvable problems we are facing as a country is the gridlock members of our government can cause as a way to block bills they don’t agree with. Congress is extremely inefficient and Americans need to demand better leadership.

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