DHS on the brink of partial shutdown: Lessons from those who were there

Former DHS leaders say you don't need a shutdown to harm the department. The threat of a partial shutdown is enough to lower employees' morale and slow down pro...

Living with the threat of a shutdown, even a partial one, is nearly as bad as the actual thing, according to former Homeland Security Department officials who helped lead it through the last shut down less than two years ago.

Former Acting Deputy Secretary Rafael Borras and former Acting Undersecretary for Management Chris Cummiskey shared their memories of the two weeks in October 2013 with Federal News Radio. They remembered the long hours spent in preparation, the blow to employees’ morale, the uncertainty surrounding major projects and, after the shutdown ended, the slow ramp up to normal operations.

DHS again will face that scenario if Congress fails to pass a spending bill by midnight Friday, when the continuing resolution that now funds the department expires.

In some respects, a shutdown now will be worse for the department than the one that engulfed the government in 2013, said Cummiskey.

“At least you knew there were a lot of folks in the same hopper and so you felt it was a larger effort,” he said. “This time, when it’s targeted just to DHS, it further feeds some of the difficulties the department is having around morale and employee engagement.”

Homeland Security Secretary Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that the vast majority of DHS employees would have to work without pay in the case of a shutdown because their jobs are considered essential to national security. The 30,000 employees who are furloughed would include many headquarters personnel.

Borras remembers playing the dual parts of leader and cheerleader during the October 2013 shutdown, as he tried to maintain the morale of his direct reports and organizational leaders. DHS’ Nebraska Avenue headquarters looked like “a virtual ghost town” during the 2013 shutdown, he said.

There was “very, very limited ability to do any planning or coordination from a headquarters standpoint,” he said. “You spend most of your time monitoring the execution and fidelity of the shutdown process to make sure you’re in compliance with the law.”

Johnson has warned that DHS headquarters’ efforts to monitor dangers, from the Islamic State to illegal immigration to severe weather events would be hampered during a shutdown.

With all but 15 percent of DHS employees expected to work after Friday regardless, some have questioned whether the public would even notice a shutdown.

Maybe not at first, said Cummiskey.

“You don’t notice it on day one, but the longer it goes on, the more disruptive and troublesome it is for the department because you have a lot of these support functions that are aiding the leadership of the department, keeping procurement on track and so on,” he said. “It’s detrimental to taxpayers because it elongates programs. It’s an inefficient use of dollars and it creates uncertainty in the workforce.”

Technology acquisition programs will suffer much of the pain because, while they are big and costly, most are not considered essential, he said. They end up missing deadlines for milestones. During the October 2013 shutdown, DHS’ Continuous Diagnostics Monitoring program lost both time and money, he recalled.

“When you pull a month out, and spend months on either side preparing for a shutdown or coming out of one, it isn’t a seamless movement to get things running again,” he said.

Damage is already done

Regardless of whether the shutdown occurs at the end of the week, some damage already has occurred, said Borras and Cummiskey.

The repeated continuous resolutions take their toll on the department’s abilities to plan and invest in major projects. Should Congress pass another CR this week, it would prolong the uncertainty surrounding the department’s budget, Borras said. Even in the best-case scenario, in which Congress passes a spending bill for the rest of this fiscal year, doubts will linger, he said.

“It’s not just a distraction and an impact on the hear and now, but it has a tremendous impact on the medium and the long-term because you have little to no ability and/or confidence to say, ‘Hey, are we going to have 3 or 4 years of straight appropriations so we can get to business as usual?’ We haven’t had that since before 2010. That’s a long run,” he said.


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