Once again, the airwaves and media outlets are filled with the threat of another federal government shutdown in just 10 days.
Congress and the president have been at odds over the annual spending bill to fund the government for months, with agencies function under a series of short-term spending measures to keep the lights on. The latest continuing resolution was passed just before Christmas and is set to expire Jan. 19.
Unfortunately, this has been a common approach to government funding in recent years that I know all too well. In 2013, as the deputy under secretary for management at the Department of Homeland Security, I was tasked with overseeing DHS’s shutdown efforts.
Now, it is no secret there are legitimate policy issues to resolve this year including a host of immigration related items. The problem is that government by continuing resolution is bad for our citizens, bad for the government and bad for Federal workers that are trying to deliver much needed services.
Bad for citizens
Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, it is likely that you or someone close to you relies on some sort of government service. This can take many forms - ranging from receiving a monthly social security check to taking your family to a national park. What does it say about our country that the Congress can’t execute the most basic responsibility of providing funds for a full fiscal year? Confidence is already low in the federal government’s ability to perform. This doesn’t help. Say what you will about state governments, but as a state senator, we had no choice but to get the budget done at the start of each fiscal year. Most states have a balanced budget requirement that forces lawmakers to get in a room and not come out until a funding bill is sent to the governor. Congress should try that approach.
Bad for government operations
Under the rules of a CR period, the funding level is an apportioned amount based on prior year funding. Think of it as a mini fiscal year. Under a CR, no new starts of programs are permitted and changes to existing programs are severely limited. It essentially freezes all the current activity for departments and agencies so that most strategic planning is placed on hold. This means that even needed changes to improve service delivery and performance are shelved until a full year spending bill is approved by Congress.
Bad for federal workers
The constant threat of a shutdown is also bad for government workers who are left to do the best they can with a cloud of constant uncertainty. CRs also make it very difficult to fill mission essential positions. Federal managers and supervisors who are often shorthanded due to attrition, retirement and lack of retention incentives, struggle to meet critical staffing needs. When coupled with the slow rate of political appointments in many agencies, it makes it almost impossible to get the job done. These artificial mini fiscal years are particularly hard on the CFO and budget offices in agencies. At any given time, they are already working issues in several fiscal years. As an example, amid the current meltdown, CFOs and their staff must continue planning for the public release of the president’s fiscal 2019 budget set for next month. This kicks off congressional attention for the next round of budgeting even though they have not finished the 2018 spending bill.
As a recovering politician, I get it. You must play the cards you are dealt to leverage your best position in a budget negotiation. There are always a lot of moving parts and competing spending interests. Threatening a federal government shutdown is considered the nuclear option by both parties in Congress. However, the reality is that government by continuing resolution is bad for just about everyone.
Chris Cummiskey is a former acting under secretary/deputy under secretary for management and chief acquisition officer at the U.S. Department Homeland Security. He also serves as a senior fellow with the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University.