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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.

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

  1. John Hancock Reply

    January 21, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    The U.S. partial government shutdown went into effect on December 22, 2018. Your article claims it has been 22 days of the partial government shutdown as of January 18, 2019. However, this is inaccurate math. It has been 27 days of active shut down.

    • PATIMES Reply

      January 23, 2019 at 9:22 pm

      Hi John,

      This is because the author submitted this article on January 13. We published it several days later. – PATimes Team

  2. Spencer Caldwell Reply

    January 20, 2019 at 12:08 pm

    We pay our taxes for our representatives, aka the government, to run the country, support capitalism, free trade, social programs, etc. and ensure our taxes are funding programs and supporting policies we agree on as a majority.

    We elect responsible leaders, Congress, to have the decision-making abilities to include compromise and negotiation that will in turn result in a government that “serves the people”. Leaders are there to serve us, not the other way around. Their policy interests should reflect the views and choices of their constituents as a majority, not their personal interests, and God forbid not petty disputes and projects that physically are unsupportable.

    YOU CANNOT ENGINEER A WALL ACROSS THE DESERT, THERE IS NOT SOLID FOUNDATION TO ROOT A WALL TO, ITS LOSE SAND.

    Maneuvering dump trucks, front loaders, excavation equipment across inaccessible barren wasteland will eat up the $5 billion alone. Not to mention the wood, concrete or steel that comprises the wall itself. Then there is the yearly maintenance and upkeep, and not to mention the drug trade will merely shift operations to seaside ports or by air. Actually more economically feasible than humping lbs of marijuana across 100s of miles of barren wasteland.

  3. John Pearson Reply

    January 18, 2019 at 4:28 pm

    I’m not sure we can say shutdowns don’t reflect the will of the people. We are a deeply divided country. The $5 billion difference over the wall seems like a small issue compared to the $4 trillion federal budget. But President Trump seems to feel he will be perceived as weak if he doesn’t get the wall funding. One commentator said his Presidency is over if he doesn’t get it. If the stakes are that high for him, he is acting in a rational manner. The democrats fear if they give in on this one, they will lose many more battles. They want to inflict a political defeat on the president. They are afraid if they back down that shutting the government down will become commonplace. The stakes are very high for both sides. I would say federal workers can do very little. Work stoppages are illegal. Perhaps, the public should elect officials who promise not to shut the government down —to always reach a compromise. Congress could even pass a law prohibiting such behavior.

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