Much as White House might try to soften blow, government shutdowns are costly and cumbersome

The West Wing of the White House is dark on Sunday.
The West Wing of the White House is dark on Sunday.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

The government shutdown is fast becoming an unwelcome and costly staple of American democracy. After the last prolonged closure delivered a substantial hit to the economy and created hardship and frustration for millions, lawmakers vowed never again.

And yet, here we are again.

Heading into the start of the workweek Monday, the Trump administration is scrambling to soften the blow of the 2-day-old shutdown with plans to keep as much of the government open as possible even if Congress fails to pass a measure to fund government agencies. Its blueprints, though, could quickly unravel.

“We are going to manage this shutdown differently,” said Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, who accused President Obama of using the 2013 budget stalemate to score political points, making the repercussions more painful for Americans than necessary.


The Trump administration was encouraging agencies to use any reserve funds or other available money that legally could keep offices open, if only temporarily, though the Obama administration may have interpreted the law more narrowly, the officials said.

Still, some hurt from a shutdown is unavoidable. The law places the federal government under extreme constraints. In most cases, agencies have no choice but to send most of their workforce home.

Some important government functions are not affected — Social Security checks will go out because they are not subject to appropriations bills that expire. The same goes for most other benefit programs.

Military and CIA operations continue, although the nation’s roughly 1.3 million uniformed personnel would not get paid until after a shutdown ends.


And with the NFL’s conference championship games Sunday, the Department of Defense made a crowd-pleasing decision. It changed the designation of the American Forces Network’s TV and radio broadcasts to “essential activities” so troops could watch games between the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles.

But hundreds of thousands of government workers stood to be affected if the shutdown continues Monday. The senior officials could not say how many workers would be furloughed across the government. But roughly 850,000 federal workers, including members of the military, would stop collecting paychecks.

With iconic sites such as the Statue of Liberty already closed, some 85% of the employees who keep the national parks running would be prohibited from working, according to the administration’s planning documents. Visitors’ centers and bathrooms would be shuttered. Maintenance crews would be sent home. Roads wouldn’t be plowed, and campsites wouldn’t get cleaned.

“Trying to run national parks without park rangers not only creates unnecessary dangers for visiting families, but puts the parks’ natural, cultural and historic resources at risk,” said Kate Kelly, public lands director at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.


Agencies would stop delivering public health programs, although officials said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would continue at least some of its work on flu prevention, reversing previous reports that the work could come to a halt amid one of the worst influenza epidemics in recent years.

The Internal Revenue Service may furlough more than half its workforce just as its agents — and taxpayers — are grappling with a tax code that underwent major changes from the new tax law. Banks could be forced to delay loans if the IRS is unable to provide applicant income verification.

Approvals that any number of businesses need from other federal agencies to move forward with their plans — including oil companies seeking drilling permits and airlines seeking to register new planes — could be frozen.

“Shutting down the government is a very serious thing,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told CNN last week. “People die, accidents happen. You don’t know. Necessary functions can cease.… There is no specific list you can look at and make a judgment, ‘Well, everything is going to be just fine.’ You can’t make that judgment.”


Some government offices that have unused funds in their accounts may be able to put off the pain for a short time.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced, for example, that it would keep all of its employees on the job through next week even if the shutdown continues. But only 781 of nearly 15,000 EPA employees would keep working once it runs out of the contingency funds. Cleanup work at most Superfund toxic waste sites would stop.

And one office the White House might well like to see closed is not affected by a shutdown. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election — including Russian contacts with the Trump campaign — will continue unimpeded since its funding is not subject to annual appropriations.

But as Mulvaney assures that this shutdown would “look different,” the contingency plans the White House has published suggest there is only so much he can do.


It is much the same at other agencies, where the plans suggest a lot of anxiety, inconvenience and frustration is on the way if Congress does not resolve things quickly.

After the 16-day shutdown of 2013, a sobering federal report assessed the damage. The report by the Office of Management and Budget concluded that the economy took a hit of $2 billion to $6 billion and that 120,000 private sector jobs didn’t get created as a result of the Washington gridlock.

Even though Congress awarded retroactive paychecks to almost every affected federal employee, as happened in earlier shutdowns, the effects rippled across the nation.

More than 2 million liters of American beer, wine and liquor sat in ports because the Treasury Department could not issue export certificates. Applications to develop 80,000 units of multifamily housing were frozen. The start of Alaskan crab fishing season was delayed several days, significantly costing fishermen, many of whom operate on the margins.


More than a dozen national parks were reopened during that shutdown as states stepped up to pay the costs of running them. State officials reasoned that shouldering the expense was less costly than the economic blow of losing visitors who spent, on total, an average of $33 million a day in the communities around the national parks. Even so, local economies still suffered a $500-million hit.