Shutdown sham: Government shutdowns punish the public

Jim Griesemer
University of Denver Strategic Issues Program
Guest Editorial

Almost everyone these days is thinking about government shutdowns. The most recent stoppage of public services is about funding the expansion of the border wall with Mexico. But shutting the government down is hardly a new idea. Just 11 months ago, there was a several day shutdown over childhood immigrants (Dreamers). Five years ago there was a 16 day shutdown over the Affordable Care Act.

The previous record for shutdowns was a three week period where President Clinton and house Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich couldn’t agree on a government spending bill. In total, over the past 42 years there have been some 20 government shutdowns ranging in length from a few hours to 21 days, averaging nearly a week long.

The media sometimes covers the battle over government shutdowns like a sporting event. It’s President Barack Obama’s strategy in the battle with Speaker John Boehner, or creating fear on the opposing side, or changing the playbook and adjusting the game plan. Sounds a lot like a football game on TV. Exciting, entertaining, bold — you can practically see the Xs and Os and curved sweep lines on the playboard.

The players—Congress and the president in this case—often seem to treat shutdowns as a tactical event, an exercise in one-upmanship, a battle to prove who is king of the hill.

But it’s not entertainment for regular Americans who are suffering increasingly significant inconvenience or furloughed government workers trying to make ends meet without a paycheck.

While it’s hard to estimate the total cost of a government shutdown in terms of money, economic growth and impact on citizens, the Office of Management and Budget made a serious attempt to do so in a study of the 16 day closure in 2013. The report is extensive, but here are a few highlights:

• Federal employees were furloughed for a combined total of 6.6 million days costing taxpayers over $2 billion for public services that could not be performed.

• The closure reduced U.S. economic growth, costing the economy between $2 and $6 billion during the period of the shutdown.

• Public services to citizens and businesses were dramatically affected. They included: delaying almost $4 billion in tax refunds; preventing hundreds of patients from enrolling in clinical trials, delaying home loan decisions for 8,000 rural families, and slowing small business contracts with the department of defense by 40 percent — and that is just a very small sample of the impacts detailed in the study.

The thousands of U.S. citizens and federal workers denied important services or their economic livelihoods during a government shutdown may just be collateral damage in the minds of some in the political class. But those impacted are citizens, voters, taxpayers and public employees — all fellow Americans — so they should count for something.

The budget brinkmanship that spawns most government shutdowns is nearly always wrapped in high-sounding phrases relating to important issues. The battles are purportedly about “securing the border,” “saving taxpayer money,” “protecting the unborn,” “helping business grow,” “creating jobs” and so on.

But, when the shutdown finally ends, the outcome is predictable: the big, important issues are almost never resolved. That’s because most such issues are not, at their cores, budget issues. The budget battle serves as a symbolic skirmish — creating smoke, sound and fury to impress the political base — while avoiding deeper issues. However, halting public services is not merely a symbolic act to American citizens. They are the ones who actually pay the price in wasted taxpayer dollars, economic decline and personal inconvenience.

So perhaps it’s time to stop punishing the public for the sake of greater party power, political bragging rights or the gratification of congressional or presidential egos. Government officials exist to solve public problems not transfer them to citizens through shutdowns. Voters have every reason to demand genuine performance from public officials and reject the sham of shutdowns.

Jim Griesemer is professor and dean emeritus at the University of Denver where he directs DU’s Strategic Issues Program. He can be reached at