As members of Congress return to the Capitol from the August work period at home with their constituents, only 11 joint legislative days remain for them to finish their most fundamental annual duty: funding the federal government to support American security and competitiveness.
There are many necessary and useful debates to be had related to this responsibility, including the size and scope of the federal government and its activities, the way taxpayer funds are used, and the looming repercussions of a growing federal deficit. However, Americans need more emphasis on negotiated solutions to confronting the nation’s key challenges, and less on who gets the blame for failure.
With attention currently going toward the probability of a government shutdown, which is what happens when annual funding is not enacted or extended, there appears to be little discussion or understanding of the consequences such a failure would bring.
The real hostages, and eventual losers in this blame game, are not elected officials or single issues of contention; they are American taxpayers and the national security they support with their tax dollars.
Who are the winners? China, Russia and other U.S adversaries.
The consequences of a government shutdown can be put into three basic categories. The first is reputational, which has broad strategic, security and financial implications. The second is anticipatory, meaning the planning, diversion of attention and hedging activities that come with a shutdown threat. The third is financial — or the tangible wasted money of shutting down and then restarting the government — and the lost opportunity and revenue that permeates the economy and thereby threatens our security.
First, a government shutdown feeds directly into the strategic narrative of our adversaries who have the most to gain when we provide evidence to support their talking points that the U.S. is fractured, dysfunctional, distracted and unreliable. Combine a potential shutdown with the debacle leading up to the last-minute avoidance of the debt limit breach earlier this year; the Biden administration’s inept, weak and confusing foreign policy; and the somewhat embarrassing nature of our current national politics, and our country is not sending signals of confidence and strength.
In fact, the inability for our national leaders to accomplish even the most basic tasks must only encourage countries to continue hedging strategies, allowing China and Russia to capitalize on our divisions to achieve their aims.
Second, as the end of the fiscal year approaches and a small cadre of elected representatives indicates a government shutdown may actually be useful, federal leaders and the workforce must prepare for all the notifications and mechanics of making it happen. Despite the reams of instructions and directives about how to do it, the actual implementation of a shutdown is complicated, confusing and subject to shifting interpretations. In fact, there are so many detailed questions that arise before, during and after a government shutdown that daily calls at leadership levels across the government consume large amounts of time. These engagements cover a huge range of topics and questions, ranging from ways to maintain military modernization momentum that is lagging China, to specifics on the diversion of major training events, to how to pay the local base groundskeeper or provide loan assistance for military families who don’t know when the next paycheck may be coming.
Multiply these calls across functional areas around the globe, and thousands of hours adding up to millions of dollars are wasted while attention is diverted from core missions and activities, and away from real national priorities of security and economic progress.
Finally, a government shutdown is expensive and imposes a negative cost on the economy, and thereby on security. For example, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 2018-2019 shutdown reduced gross domestic product by a total of $11 billion, including $3 billion that was unrecoverable.
Financial impacts come in the form of reduced access to federal loans, lost interest payments, delayed contracts and the inability to disburse funds, which then reverberates into private sector investments and hiring decisions. A 2019 Senate report found that the three government shutdowns — in 2013, 2018 and 2019 — cost taxpayers nearly $4 billion.
From a Pentagon perspective, weapons systems are delayed; training is missed, which impacts readiness; and junior uniform personnel, who are already struggling with financial challenges, go unpaid while they continue to work. In addition, costs are incurred when back pay is provided to a federal workforce that is largely furloughed. These financial impacts not only waste taxpayer dollars, but they reach large and small businesses, a shaky supply chain, and ultimately military competitiveness and national security.
Congress has a key constitutional responsibility: providing annual appropriations to fund the federal government. The federal government has only one mandatory and exclusive job: providing for the common defense. A government shutdown is an avoidable self-inflicted wound that disgracefully demonstrates failure to meet both foundational tasks while damaging America’s reputation, security and economy.
Elaine McCusker is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. She previously served as the Pentagon’s deputy undersecretary of defense (comptroller) as well as acting undersecretary of defense (comptroller).