An unfunded, unopened government sure is expensive

When the perverse becomes the norm, you’ve got trouble.

Now we have yet another government “shutdown.” I’ve lost track of how many of these events I’ve covered in 27 years on the federal beat, but I don’t like them. I’m a citizen, too.

In reality it’s far from a shutdown, at least for now. Some parts of government have their 2019 funds, including the departments of Defense, and Health and Human Services. We’re in the midst of a four-day weekend thanks to Christmas. Nothing will change at least until the Senate reconvenes on Thursday.

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But for the agencies affected by the Congressional-White House impasse, it’s bad enough. I try to focus on the micro level. One email came to a friend from a contractor employee in Loveland, Colorado, who operates a large federal data center. The employee said the agency wants the servers turned off to avoid overheating. How’s that? The agency believes it can’t pay the electric utility so the cooling equipment, and hence the servers, will have to be shut off.

Trouble is, with the agency closed no federal employees can go on site. So the contractors can’t go in and do the power-down.

I believe the vernacular phrase is a “catch 22.”

Should a federal manager receive the “excepted” designation, I guess he or she could unlock the door and let a contractor in. The contractor would be using vacation time while the fed wouldn’t get paid for now. The people doing the day-to-day work of the government in the unfunded agencies are the collateral damage. The lofty political fight isn’t about you.

The border wall fight seems to have triggered this. But, like the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, it feels like that’s only a catalyst loosening profound fissures.

And what of the public? For the average American, these “shutdowns” are mostly an abstraction. For instance, if someone flies the Transportation Security Administration is on the job. So are FAA air traffic controllers. If someone goes to or from Mexico, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are still working. Mail delivery will continue, federal prisoners will remain guarded and Social Security payments will arrive.

Over time, though, things will get worse. Tax filing and refunds could become chaotic. Federal recreation facilities and services will wink out. The administrative processes that back up operational ones will start to affect those excepted people on the front lines. Economic reports, Census testing, software development — cessation of activities like this will harm services down the line.

And, of course, for excepted or furloughed employees the lack of a paycheck will start to bite.

For civil servants and for all citizens, these situations eat away at confidence in our political processes and our politicians. Skepticism threatens to become cynicism.

So for many reasons, while shutdowns have small net effect on federal spending, they are indeed costly.