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Public Administration Under a Government Shutdown: Is This Now the New Norm? 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan (Natan) Teklemariam
January 18, 2019

As of this writing, the United States federal government has been in a partial shutdown for 22 days, making it the longest ever in history. During a shutdown, the government temporarily stops paying its employees and external contractors for their services. What does that mean, and why has it become a normal occurrence in our governance? Perhaps there is no better time to make the case for the importance of public administration in the functioning of our daily lives other than during a shutdown. It is unfortunate that it takes such extreme dysfunction such as this to make that point. Let’s be clear: it is an utter failure of one of the greatest democracies ever.

The current shutdown has now affected the lives of over 800,000 government employees serving across multiple agencies such as:

  1. Department of the Treasury
  2. Department of Agriculture
  3. Homeland Security Department
  4. Department of the Interior
  5. Department of State
  6. Department of Housing and Urban Development
  7. Department of Transportation
  8. Department of Commerce
  9. Department of Justice

The images of closed restrooms and overloaded trash bins at national parks only speak to the basic functions of government we tend to forget matter. Extending to the larger population, receiving a tax return may take longer than most people have planned for in making financial decisions in their lives. According to many reports, hundreds of TSA employees have been calling-in sick to work knowing they possibly are working under a furloughed. The instability of work within the federal government under a constant shutdown scenario leaves many to question the normalcy of working for the institution. This is not a situation where there is a downsizing of staff in the private sector. It is a failure of government.

On a basic human scale, those directly affected financially by not getting a paycheck obviously affects their families, as well as the businesses and the economy they support by spending their earned salaries. Street-level bureaucrats are the most affected, and according to several studies, they represent the largest number of employees living paycheck to paycheck.

Since the 1970s when the modern government introduced the budget process, we have had over 20 government shutdowns. Although most shutdowns have lasted just a few days, their impact has never been less an impasse of policy dysfunction. Whether it was the 18 days in 1978 during the Jimmy Carter administration, the 21 days under President Bill Clinton in 1995-1996, or the 16 days under President Barack Obama in 2013, they all have resulted in the disruption of government services, increased costs to taxpayers, and overall GDP output of the economy.

So, what can public administration at the federal level do to overcome this disruption of governance? Under the Constitution, is there a tool for the basic function of government to continue while the branches of government hash out their differences? These should be questions millions of government employees and voting members of society should ask. It is a false narrative to assume that shutdowns are a norm and are acceptable from one of the greatest democracies and largest economy. Why should the public allow basic government to fail in serving its citizens?

Currently, Congress has the tool of using continuing resolutions (CRs) to keep funding agencies at the same level as the previous year to avoid a shutdown. This has been a tool most commonly used in recent years, kicking the bucket a few weeks or months down the road instead of funding government for the long term. This method is inefficient and costly, as it does not take into account changing policy implications on the agency. Sequestration, which allows for the reduction of funding in discretionary spending caps of the total amount of annually-appropriated agency programs has also been a tool used to avoid the externalities of a shutdown of government services. Neither of these tools are long term solutions to a growing dysfunction of the federal government that appears to exist on a regular basis.

The people living under a representative democracy expect government to function at its most basic level. Government shutdowns for political expediency do not reflect the will of its people. Public administrators, it appears, have very little power to curtail shutdowns. Perhaps we should begin to ask what millions of public servants working for the federal government can do to avoid the impasse of a shutdown. As a student of public administration, this has not been a topic that has been a part of classroom discussions. Perhaps it is time that we tackle this issue more directly in the discourse of academia research platforms.   


Author:Nathan (Natan) Teklemariam is a third-year Doctoral student at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Teklemariam is a 2018 ASPA Founders’ Fellow and a 2018 ASPA International Young Scholars recipient. [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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