Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Shutting Down Effective Governance

By Leor GinzburgPublished March 14, 2015

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There is a need for US politicians to refine governmental processes and operate in a state-centric rather than a party-centric system; viewing government shutdowns as bad publicity rather than a means by which to advance a party agenda is one key way to so do.
Lately, government shutdowns have become overused as the default condition of politicians in contesting presidential orders, countering one divisive tool with another. In recent weeks, President Obama's executive action regarding immigration turned funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) into a political tug-of-war and placed the government on the verge of a second shutdown in two years.

I don't seek to assign blame to either party for such impasses but rather intend to analyze some of the negative implications that could be levied by a government shutdown on the image of the United States and its government in the eyes of onlookers: federal employees, friends, and adversaries. In the process, I offer that US politicians must begin to act within a state-centric rather than a party-centric system, as even the possibility of government shutdown may be perceived as US vulnerability to adversaries.

According the Partnership for Public Service, the DHS has been identified as the unhappiest executive department, ranking lowest in employee satisfaction, commitment, and morale. A deflated confidence of DHS employees in their administration can be partly attributed to practices imposed on the DHS during government shutdowns. In the case of the 2013 government shutdown, the Congressional Research Service stated that 200,0000 DHS employees were required to report to work without pay, while others, mostly management and administrative positions, were furloughed indefinitely.

This lack of motivation seems particularly problematic when placed in the context of international affairs, considering that the DHS is second only to the Department of Defense in preparing and protecting against foreign threats. The DHS's interactions with its workforce seem almost parallel to if the DOD were to dispatch reluctant soldiers into battle. In a time of heightened international conflict it is alarming to see a possible chink in the armor of US homeland security, especially one that is self-inflicted.

Government shutdowns reveal the disturbing possibility that American politicians hold party loyalty above ample national security. Looking in, outside forces may interpret the shutdown system as a source of national instability and dysfunction, lowering the perceived rank of the US in international affairs.

If politicians continue to resort excessively to government shutdowns, allies may begin losing confidence in US capabilities and rivals may begin gaining confidence in their own relative capabilities. During a period of ISIS transnational terrorism, Russian diplomatic defiance, and Chinese economic boom, this is no time for the US to exhibit even the slightest weakness, even if it means compromising party interests for the sake of the nation's image and security.

In a CNN report, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate speculated that in the case of a terrorist attack, FEMA response time would be "sluggish or delayed" since furloughed workers are not required to stay near their phones or at their homes. For this reason, in the wake of ISIS attacks on Western nations, a government shutdown could incite terrorist attacks with the government debilitated and the public exposed.

Furthermore, as China, the world's second largest economy, continues to grow more than 7% annually, even the modest 0.2-0.6% dent in US GDP projected by the OMB after the 2013 shutdown must be taken seriously. If the Chinese economy's growth exceeds that of the US, actors may begin to stray from the current dollar-centric system, removing the US from its position as the international hegemon and benefactor. Also, according the OMB, the shutdown temporarily stunted trade, investment, and tourism with necessary governmental services unavailable to constituents. It is important for politicians to recognize the implications of their actions not only on domestic policy but also on the international economy and the US's standing within it.

US politicians must therefore keep in mind ambitions of foreign states when making their decisions, including China's desire for a yen-centric system and Russia's desire for a Eurasian Union. They must avoid becoming consumed in political squabbles to the point where the US government appears blindsided by party tensions and inattentive to global events in order to remain relevant and influential in the international system.

In addition to a new outlook, I believe that it is essential for the government to install formal mechanisms to circumvent and deal with party deadlocks, suggesting a normal state of affairs in the US government to onlookers. In order to minimize party stalemates, the legislative and judicial branches could work to officially or unofficially outline the executive power of the President to issue national and homeland security directives under the US Constitution. Congress could also work to pass legislation requiring all departments to set aside monetary reserves to remain fully functional in the case of an extended appropriations disagreement.

Although far less simplistic than my descriptions, such alternative processes, in conjunction with state-centric thinking on the part of politicians, would disempower the shutdown weapon and preserve the US national image as a major force in the international political and economic spheres.


Image Source: http://mediad.publicbroadcasting.net/p/hppr/files/201310/government_shutdown_2013.jpg