Budgetary brinksmanship jeopardizes national security

Now that a temporary solution to the partial government shutdown is in place, it’s time to find a permanent solution to the governance conditions that led to this disastrous episode that hurt not just hundreds of thousands of federal workers, but the entire country.

Playing budgetary roulette with essential governmental functions has dispelled the myth that slash and burn tactics aimed at reducing the size and scope of government are a useful governance mechanism. If there is one silver lining to the recent shutdown, it’s that the American public—and our political leaders—have been forcefully reminded that there is a rationale (and constituency) for almost every government program. All Americans now understand the essential work the federal government does — work that no one else can do.

Our fervent hope is that the shutdown impacts will put a spotlight on the importance of government programs and the dedicated public servants who administer them and will result in two major outcomes: First, it will begin to restore the public’s confidence in its government, which by every poll is at historic lows; Second, it will spur our political leaders to undertake reforms that ensure that government shutdowns and their pernicious cousins, continuing resolutions (CRs), are no longer the norm when it comes to governance in Washington, D.C.

It’s highly discouraging that budgetary brinksmanship in Washington has so often replaced compromise and statesmanship. The cost of this was laid bare during the recent partial shutdown, resulting in concerns about air safety, FBI agents’ inability to maintain confidential relationships, the Coast Guard going unpaid, subsidized housing eviction notices, a freeze in USDA loans and federal subsidies for farmers and ranchers … the list goes on and on. Sadly, those situations were the highly visible and painful symptoms of a much larger problem.

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The National Academy of Public Administration has issued a call for public input on the greatest challenges facing our governance models at the local, state and federal levels in the decade to come.  The Grand Challenges in Public Administration initiative is designed to identify what is challenging our government now and how our government can address those challenges so that we can ensure government continues to work in the future.

Solutions to these challenges must address the issues around equity and inclusion, security and resilience, economic development, fiscal sustainability, and individual well-being that this most recent shutdown made painfully obvious. We simply cannot let this crisis go to waste—we must use it to motivate real change in our government systems, programs, and processes so that we better serve all Americans.

Similarly, the Senior Executives Association recently published a devastating study that documented the steady erosion of the federal government’s ability to respond to multiple and unanticipated crises. The cause? Lack of investment or innovation in our civil service.

We want an agile government, but we are operating under mid-20th century rules. Over the past 20 years, the civil service workforce has eroded to the point that it is stretched too thin. This fragile infrastructure, coupled with a pervasive toxic political environment, produces crises such as our recent partial government shutdown.

We believe it is time to end these high-stakes games and put the American people first. We are calling on the Congress and the administration to put aside their differences and come to the table to find permanent, sustainable solutions that will lead to a fully functional, reliable government.

Among ideas they should consider are:

  • Automatic renewal of funding for all aspects of government in the event of a funding lapse.
  • Restoration of a rational budget process that produces annual appropriations bills as the norm and not the exception.
  • Rebuilding the trust of our civil servants, who have faced many challenges due to political infighting over the past two decades. It is essential to the functioning of our government that we have a highly motivated and dedicated workforce that is insulated from political battles.

If we do these things, we believe our nation will have the government it deserves.

Underpinning that government will be a civil service corps that serves the American public with skill, dedication and a sense of public service that inspires confidence in our government’s ability to fulfill the promise of the preamble to the Constitution: Establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for all of our citizens.

 Terry Gerton is president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration and Bill Valdez is president of the Senior Executives Association.

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