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The Longest U.S. Government Shutdown

It is unsurprising that the U.S. descent into political tribalism, where red lines and blue ones are uncrossable, would also produce the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Like the 15 government shutdowns over the last 38 years, shutting down functions of the Federal Government is a way of exacting political costs on opponents by blaming them for a budget impasse or some lack of political concessions in what can only be described as a Pyrrhic victory. In all cases, however, the real victims are the thousands of federal employees, government contractors and their families who pay the heaviest price. This time around they are getting hit by a veritable one-two punch. The first, is the shutdown and its terrible timing, which coincided with the holidays and the transition to the New Year, which is off to a grim start. The second, is that it comes amid such a politically toxic environment that the pay freeze they will also endure in 2019 went largely unnoticed.

The proposition for the affected government worker is damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Guidance to furloughed employees on how to barter their talent, such as painting or carpentry in lieu of rent is not only denigrating, it smacks of some alternate dystopian reality that many politicians seem hellbent on creating. Ironically, where France has plunged into a political crisis due to persistent and widespread popular unrest at the hands of the gilets jaunes, the U.S. has entered a period of political crisis at the hands of the very (few) people who are meant to avert political and economic crises not cause them. In many ways, the government shutdown is taking place over political emblems, rather than dire issues that would either deadlock the left or the right. The border wall with Mexico has become the ultimate political lightning rod and not only is Mexico not paying for it, U.S. federal employees, taxpayers and the economy writ large are clearly bearing the brunt of this impasse, which has now entered the 21st day, tying the longest running government shutdown in U.S. history.

Adding insult to injury, the political crisis shows no signs of abating as a newly impaneled and newly emboldened Democratic Party, which has wrested control of the House of Representatives, appears hellbent of wielding their newfound powers. The democrats, like any party before them, would be wise to remember that being the anti-Trump is no more a political platform than being ardently anti-Obama before it. Government shutdowns leave deep fissures in the U.S. public record and each one is an example of government dysfunction and an example of political moral hazards, where the people who take the risks, elected officials who are supposed to serve the people, do not bear the consequences of their actions. Risk taking without bearing the consequences is as tiresome as the partisan bickering from which political stalemates are born.

Beyond the immediate impacts on government employees, the broader economy faces risks due to the shutdown. Not least, it should be noted, on the national security front over which so much arguing is supposed to strengthen. That Transportation Security Administration agents are falling mysteriously ill or missing work leaves little confidence for one of the most porous points of entry into the U.S., namely airports and other ports of entry. Similarly, the plight of unpaid U.S. Coast Guard personnel, who are steadfast in protecting U.S. coastlines and responding to maritime threats and emergencies, further weakens national security. Indeed, the already long lines and hassles of travel have only worsened since the shutdown began and coincided with one of the busiest travel periods of the year. Say nothing of the morale in the federal government, but particularly in critical security functions, who are well aware of their vital contributions so the rest of country can travel and sleep soundly at night.

On the economic front, 70,000 furloughed IRS employees at the outset of tax filing season is of little comfort to the millions of people and businesses that rely on prompt tax returns for their budgets, notwithstanding promises that refunds will be handled on time. Once again, the U.S. risks losing its AAA credit rating over the shutdown, which will increase the cost of borrowing in the economy. With so few people watching the looking glass across more than 800,000 government functions, U.S. adversaries are liable to test the cracks in the government edifice, as much as the shutdown is testing employee morale, focus and their scarce financial resources. Indeed, FDA food safety inspections declining sharply during the shutdown is of little comfort, especially following a rash of nation wide food borne illnesses, contaminants and recalls.

The mix of low morale, absenteeism and the already strained national security resources, over which this fight began in the first place, is not making the country safer. In fact, it is safe to say, the U.S. is at a low point domestically and internationally and the government shutdown is just the latest manifestation of the erosion of economic competitiveness and political stability. Our 800,000 federal employees deserve better and our 250 million strong electorate, irrespective of party, should let their elected officials and the president know that a 21-day government shutdown is 21 days too many.

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