The Government Shutdown Erodes American Life

The partial shutdown of the federal government, which resulted from an impasse between President Donald Trump and the U.S. Congress amid his insistence that an appropriations bill include more than $5 billion for a border wall, entered its second month at midnight on Monday night. As this article goes to press, no end is in sight for the longest shutdown in U.S. history — and its pain cuts deep for ordinary, hard-working civil servants.

As a result of the shutdown, some 800,000 federal employees are currently furloughed or forced to work without a paycheck. They will receive back pay when the government reopens, but in the meantime, many are struggling to scrape together enough ready cash for rent payments, medical expenses, credit card bills and mortgages, all of which must be paid whether the government is open or not. An estimated 4 million government contractors face an even greater peril, as they are ineligible for back pay for work that they miss while the government is closed. According to a 2017 report by the Federal Reserve, approximately 41 percent of American adults do not even have sufficient savings to cover a hypothetical $400 emergency expense; evidently, forgoing a month (or more) of income is nothing short of catastrophic for them.

Admittedly, the drama of what passes for “negotiation” on Capitol Hill nowadays currently commands much of public attention, but the most important stories of the shutdown do not concern Sen. Mitch McConnell’s hiding places or Trump’s terrible-twos temper tantrums. They concern the struggling families across the country who have nothing to do with the border wall and largely don’t want it. The most important stories concern the diabetes patients who must ration their insulin until they can afford to buy more; the civil servants who must drive Ubers or find jobs at Starbucks in order to cobble together an existence; the contracted janitors and cafeteria workers at Smithsonian museums who will never recoup their lost paychecks. More generally, when the men and women who keep our crucial government functions running smoothly are treated poorly, they have every reason to pack it in and take their talent to the private sector.

The disastrous consequences of the shutdown extend even beyond its toll on federal workers. Overall, it’s a good, unequivocal reminder of the many services that the federal government provides that we take for granted. For example, treasured U.S. national parks have already been desecrated by visitors taking advantage of the lack of ranger supervision; at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, for example, vandals cut down centuries-old Joshua trees in order to drive their cars off-road. Similarly, at Yosemite National Park, which is approximately the size of Rhode Island, there are currently only six rangers on duty. On Christmas Day, someone died of a head injury because arriving medical personnel were not equipped with a stretcher.

Some other repercussions of the shutdown are fairly self-evident and top-level — for example, if the standoff is not resolved soon, federal courts will exhaust their funds, raising concerns that the integrity of the legal system will be compromised. But other problems are far less obvious and equally disastrous. For example, the security certificates on many federal government websites, including those belonging to the Department of Justice, NASA, the National Archives and the Department of Agriculture, have now expired, which could potentially undermine U.S. cybersecurity. Since the shutdown, chatter about a potential recession on the horizon has increased, but less attention has been paid to the more imminent issue that because of the shutdown, a lot of the government data reports that would typically tell us how the U.S. economy is doing  — data on imports and exports, construction spending, durable goods sales and manufacturing — just won’t be released. This confounding ignorance about the current economic performance will impede well-informed policymaking long after the shutdown is over.

It is nearly impossible to speculate how this shutdown will end. The White House’s proposal is nearly certain to stall in the Senate; Democrats rightly are reluctant to accept fleeting and insubstantial fixes to DACA in exchange for a fully-funded wall that is more a monument to siege-mentality nativism than smart border policy. (More on potential deals that Democrats should be willing to cut in a future column if — God forbid — the shutdown continues for another week). Until then, the shambolic Trump presidency will continue to careen and lurch while American families are left to decide which bills get paid and which do not.