Longest Government Shutdown: Why, How and Where We Go From Here
by Lea Rodiqi | published Jul. 2nd, 2019
January 25, 2019 marked the end of the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States. The reason behind the government shutdown was the disagreement between the 115th Congress of the United States and President Donald Trump. It regarded an appropriations bill for funding the government without any money allocated to building the wall on the Mexican border. After President Trump refused to sign the initial bill, the House passed another bill with the requested funds for the wall, which was then blocked in the Senate.
The result ended in the longest partial government shutdown in the history of the United States. Since it was only partial, departments vital to the everyday functions of the government remained open — some without pay. The effects were devastating.
The shutdown lasted 35 days and affected the Department of State, Department of Justice and the Treasury, among many others. It is estimated that around 800,000 federal workers were furloughed or laid off during this time period.
In addition, the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) initial estimation was that the shutdown cost the U.S. economy over 11 billion dollars. This number is highly disputed and there is a strong likelihood that the cost could be much higher.
According to Jeannette Mitchell, professor of economics, the figure given by the CBO does not reflect the future costs of the government shutdown.
“What happens when you have unemployed resources like [in the shutdown], it means that even your potential to create more GDP (gross domestic product) declines," Mitchell said. "It is not just that [the U.S. economy] lost 11 billion dollars this year, it also lost some in the following year because those resources are now gone and we will never be able to get it back. As a result, the potential GDP can be impacted years and years down the road, specifically the potential of the economy."
A Political Confrontation Creating Economic Turmoil
Many agencies were also greatly affected by the shutdown including the Department of State, Justice, Agriculture and Treasury. While the D.C. area has the largest concentration of federal workers in the country, there were many other regions across the country, such as in Ogden, Utah, where around two-thirds of the labor force were affected. This created far-reaching consequences for the entire community, not just the federal workers. While not at such a big scale, the Rochester area was also affected by the federal government shutdown in a myriad of ways.
New York State has 116,248 employees in the federal government. Of these, 14,000 were furloughed as they worked in affected departments. The Greater Rochester area itself has a couple of thousand workers in the federal government, primarily in the Department of Treasury. Some workers are also employed in the Social Security Administration and Veteran Affairs, which were affected by the shutdown as well.
Because of the length of the partial government shutdown, federal workers missed their paychecks. This was problematic as many Americans have very little savings; with no income coming in, these savings can be drained quite quickly. People were forced to cancel plans and draw from savings in order to afford essential medicines or simple things such as food and utilities.
Economics professor Amit Batabyal elaborated more on the impact of the government shutdown.
"Due to missed paychecks, some people could not afford life-saving medication. CNN covered a story of a woman who could not afford her insulin," he stated. "Without income, she was forced to rely on fundraisers and people's donations in order to afford her insulin."
The effects of the lack of income are particularly pronounced if both heads of the household are federal employees in the department's shutdown. So, in order to make some income during this period of time, some people took up other jobs.
"A portion of federal workers chose to find temporary employment in companies such as Uber and Lyft if they owned a vehicle," Professor Batabyal stated.
When asked to describe the government shutdown in a simple phrase, Professor Batabyal called it, "an economic hardship largely created by an artificial reason."
Indeed, for many, the government shutdown caused economic deprivation for thousands of people.
Not Only Government Workers
Unfortunately, the end of the government shutdown in January did not signal the end of its effects. While some government workers did not receive their paychecks, many people who rely on government assistance were left empty-handed.
In the Rochester area, around 3,500 families experienced food shortages as they did not receive their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. There was an unprecedented 50-day delay between the benefits in January and March — so most families did not receive any SNAP benefits in February.
In a concentrated effort to help these affected communities, many non-profit organizations established organized events to help. Fourteen food banks were set up around the greater Rochester area to provide food to those in need. The food distribution centers expected to serve around 250 families each. Around the same time, the supermarket chain Wegmans reduced its prices for some essential goods from Feb. 16, 2019 to March 2, 2019.
Another subset of the population was also affected by the government shutdown in an unexpected way. Batabyal elaborated on the information that was lost during the shutdown. Indeed, many people rely on the data that government agencies collect on a daily basis.
"The Department of Commerce collects information on the census ... the Department of Agriculture collects information on the output of different crops by farmers, and as a result of this collection of data, which is typically at the taxpayers' expense, lot of individuals — including academic researchers who use their data for their research — and private entities who are interested in making forecasts about the future aspect of the economy ... they have come to rely on this kind of data," Batabyal said.
This became an issue during the government shutdown when these particular government agencies were not able to perform this function.
"[When this kind of data] either doesn't get put out at all, or put out at a much slower rate than what the usual frequency is, that causes concern because these people rely on these data ... [they] are not able to conduct their functions as well as they were with the full availability of this data," Batabyal continued.
As such, the impact of the government shutdown is not just concentrated on federal workers but rather spread among those using government services.
According to professor of public policy Kent Gardner, it is the latter group in particular which has actually borne the greatest consequence of the shutdown.
"The back pay provision — which guarantees that federal employees will receive their owed paychecks at the end of the shutdown — does not apply to government contractors," Gardner stated. "So, any non-federal worker who was contracted by the federal government to complete a project on its behalf, will not receive any payments."
"So any non-federal worker who was contracted by the federal government to complete a project on its behalf, will not receive any payments."
This created financial hardship for many of the people affected as they were faced with mounting utility bills, mortgages, health care necessities or other miscellaneous payments that they could not afford.
Reaction to the Shutdown
The polarization in American political and civil life was also deepened by the partial government shutdown. As the shutdown dragged on, Republicans and Democrats drove further and further apart on most issues, particularly border security. With the wall on the Southern Border being the main cause for the shutdown, it was not unexpected that the political polarization would also extend to their supporters. This divide was especially apparent on security policy.
The Pew Research Center found that only six percent of Democrats supported stronger security measures (including the wall) on the Southern border compared to 82 percent of Republicans. This drove the political impasse that hindered the end of the government shutdown.
Media coverage of the shutdown has also been put in the spotlight. Indeed, it was after significant pushback and criticism of Trump from right-wing media outlets that he changed his position on the appropriations bill and refused to sign it. In the days and weeks during the shutdown, media outlets were just as polarized in their reporting as the general public. The result of the polarized media coverage was that stories of furloughed workers and their hardships were often neglected.
A factor driving this polarized coverage is that, unlike in previous shutdowns, there didn't seem to be a strong incentive for reconciliation. All relevant stakeholders were very grounded in their own positions and — for a long time — refused to compromise.
Looking to the Future
The partial government shutdown was not beneficial for any party involved; President Trump saw his approval ratings decline, while71% of the American population considered that the border wall did not justify the shutdown and its consequences.
After the reopening of the government, Trump declared a national emergency in which he will reallocate funds from the Pentagon to building the wall at the Southern border. The Congress of the United States, with a Democratic House majority, passed a resolution denouncing the declaration of a national emergency. The Senate followed the same path. President Trump vetoed the resolution. A coalition of states, including New York, filed a lawsuit claiming the declaration made by President Trump is unconstitutional. Since then, there has been little news on the subject.
Simultaneously, Trump has drafted a budget for 2020 which foresees 8.6 billion dollars allocated to building the wall on the southern border. It is necessary to note that while Congress maintains the ultimate decision-making power over the budget, the president's proposal still offers insight into his plans and can be used to determine the priorities of his administration.
In what may be considered an unexpected turn of events, the Republican-led Senate published its own budget proposal which did not reflect President Trump's request. Given that the House of Representatives is currently led by Democrats, most people are worried that this could create further conflicts next year leading to yet another government shutdown.
According to Gardner, however, this conflict is unlikely to lead up to that. Republicans generally agree that another prolonged government shutdown such as this one would be politically disadvantageous. Given that the matter of the national emergency is now in the hands of the judicial courts, there is a very low probability that legislative and executive nonalignment will lead to another government shutdown.
Batabyal argued that, "[While another shutdown might be avoided], there is a clear case that the issue of the wall will be a topic for the forthcoming presidential election, regardless of whether the money has been allocated to the wall or not."
Two things remain certain: the process in the court regarding the declaration of national emergency will cost taxpayers money and the wall is likely to remain a campaign tool leading into the 2020 Presidential Election.