Federal Employees News Digest

Political scientist: Many factors lead to shutdowns—but fixes are gaining ground

The recent shutdown—involving funding for more than a quarter of the federal government—finally got resolved, but only after a record-breaking 35-day massive disruption for hundreds of thousands of feds. Going forward, again feds face massive uncertainty: the Trump White House and Congress managed to compromise only for a three-week run of appropriations. POTUS is back at publicly pressing Congress—bartering a willingness to sign spending bills perhaps only if his border wall demands are met—while the majority of lawmakers remain opposed, recreating the specter of another shutdown. This week, Nathan Abse talks with George Peery, a political scientist and chairman the University of North Carolina-Asheville chapter of the nonpartisan World Affairs Council of America—and a commentator on government and the problems created by shutdown threats and shutdowns.

Q&A with George Peery

The shutdown ended after 35 days, the longest one ever—but given the players, do you expect business as usual to return to government and the civil service?

Peery: I think the answer depends on what you’re talking about as “business as usual.” Clearly, with the Democrats coming into power and taking the helm in the House of Representatives, things won’t be the same anyway. This has been, for the last two years, a Congress that has protected this president—really, from any kind of scrutiny there. If that has been the usual, well, we ain’t going to be returning to that any time soon.

Can you comment on the direct impacts of the shutdown on the civil service?  

Peery: I think, for the civil service, there will continue to be some interruptions in normalcy there. But they will try to do what they always do—do their jobs. Unfortunately, there is tons of work to do, playing catch-up. All the agencies and departments that were shut down suffered delayed paychecks, IRS reimbursements, and meanwhile all kinds of administrative tasks and work on their missions that they fell behind on. And now civil servants will have to spend tons of time spent on catching up now after this—every department will have to apply a lot of staff time to clean-up processes.

Could you comment on the damage and immediate losses to the economy?

Peery: A lot of folks with business interests are just now calculating and re-calculating the costs of this extraordinary stop in funding. Of course, we saw that [even in the last quarter of last year] $3 billion-plus was lost. And—I’m not sure on this—did the government calculations so far include the costs to contractors? Listen, this is going to put a major hiatus—a real hit—against the robust economy we still had going into the midterm elections. As for the damage to the civil service, I want to be clear—I think agencies will come back to normal, but for some time there will be damage and wasted money there. We need to face these were very real losses. Really, this is just a mess. And I don’t mean that just as a metaphor. Our national parks and other federal property are damaged, and that’s the case in other parts of government too. If the federal estimates are already up to $11 billion, as we’ve seen, then this is not going to be just an incidental hit on the country, on the civil service and GDP.

We have a very pugnacious president—and a general flavor of no compromise rolling around Washington—can you discuss the impacts?

Peery: This particular president is all over the map, especially in terms of what he says. In fact, I think we stepped into this last crisis because he communicated to lawmakers that he would go along with the deal they envisaged. He communicated that it was good enough, and that he could go ahead with their deal. But, suddenly—two days before they were going to vote on the appropriations bill—he pulled the plug on Congress. That led directly to the shutdown.  

Are you encouraged that the recent end to the shutdown will hold?

Peery: Well, one thing that I am hopeful about is that the president’s rhetoric—in the last week or two—appears to have changed. He recently isn’t talking about a concrete wall from sea to shining sea. Instead, he is talking more about alternative barriers—like one with metal slats, etc. I am hopeful his own recent words give him wiggle room to repair to a different position—not stuck with his previous position—politically speaking. He even could claim a kind of victory—he could say people misunderstood him, and he really didn’t intend to build a concrete wall along places with sharp cliffs and canyons, like along parts of the Rio Grande, that sort of rhetoric. Anyway, his old position, that position, made him sound like he didn’t know what he was talking about.

You mean he could sort of say, “Everyone misunderstood me—less extensive, less extensive kinds of barriers and border security is what I meant all along”?  

Peery: Exactly, yes. So, I hope for that.

Are there deeper effects on the civil service—on current employee morale, on recruiting young graduates, and on the civil service’s image to a wider public?

Peery: Paul Light, the political science professor at NYU and eminent expert on the civil service, has written on—long before the recent shutdown—the demographic bulge of Baby Boomers in the civil service, those who came into the civil service in the 1970s and 1980s. These civil servants are in their 60s and 70s now. Light recently noted that he wouldn’t be surprised if a wide swath of those who had planned to put in a few more years of service might now just head for the exits. Many will likely say, “Hell’s bells, this just isn’t worth the stress to me, my kids and grandkids, and on me.” I hadn’t thought deeply enough this until recently, but there is data from Light and others to illustrate this likelihood.

That’s the shutdown’s effect on current morale—what about on recruiting?

Peery: The federal civil service is going to be less attractive. It’s going to be seen that way by talented, promising and moxie young people in college and graduate school. More young people who might have been attracted to it are going to say, “Do I really want to do this?” If the government is seen as in danger of shutting down all the time, and there are other good opportunities out there, this is just going to happen, period. The federal government may become even less able to compete. Departments and agencies already do not offer as attractive salary scales as most private-sector jobs. They rely on people who say to themselves, “I want to do this because I want to do something good for society.” But, again, if for young prospects there’s a sense that government service looks like both lower salaries and shut down time, many will just select a different option. As far as the image of the government and government jobs across the wider society goes, it’s been besmirched by this recent shutdown.

You raise again the specter: The partial shutdown ended, but will it soon be “Long live the shutdown!” from the President and some in Congress all over again?

Peery: We just don’t know enough. We don’t have the full story about what’s been going on behind the scenes, between the congressional side and the White House. Now, I think what we have seen, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell revealed last week, was “I can take these votes on short-term fixes, but for more I can’t hold my caucus together around this situation.” More or less I think McConnell is saying, “You, Mr. President, are going to have to help us or let us figure out a way to cool things off here, and propose new ways to go forward.” Clearly, the White House and its advisors, entering the recent shutdown, offered no way forward if leaders on the Democratic side would not give the president his five-plus billion dollars. That’s what happened. It could happen again.

Do you think there will be a political compromise to avoid shutdowns, in the longer term?

Peery: Well, I love the way legislatures work, when they work. Sens. McConnell, Schumer and Pelosi already have planned that they are going to pull together appropriations people, from both sides of the aisles, and they are not going to go forward on appropriations without backing from their colleagues and ending up in the same place. But at least they do have an exit strategy. Each side is going to say to the other, you are going to get something too—both sides—as we make a compromise. Lawmakers are still wizards at compromise, when they have to be.  

How did our politics get so toxic—leading to a spree of shutdown threats in recent years and winding up with this longest shutdown ever?  

Peery: Over the long haul, we haven’t had a re-aligning election since 1980 and Ronald Reagan, in my observation. We’ve been all over the map since 1980. In some ways we haven’t had a true realigning election since FDR came along with the New Deal. Now, in my generation we saw some major re-alignments in politics over conflicts on Vietnam, civil rights, and Watergate. The Voting Rights Act and public accommodations laws had President Johnson do something really right, really heroic in some ways—and he said he knew that it would take a generation for his party to regain ground in the South. He knew domestic politics very well, and he was prescient on this in many ways. What followed was Nixon, unfortunately, in the sense that what happened under him made everyone feel more cynical across the board. My point is big re-alignments don’t happen that often, and we haven’t had one in a long time. But the toxicity started a long time ago, and has obviously reached a point here—and the re-alignment is pitting very opposed sides against each other.

But why, exactly—scandal under Nixon caused cynicism, yes, but what since?

Peery: Well, these days identity politics and political correctness torques some people, big time, in many parts of the country. There are many forces going into the toxicity. Another codicil I would offer, in terms of things both parties should work on to ease the toxic environment, is that—and this one is for policy geeks but it’s gaining traction—Congress needs to pass a law that says, no matter what, we have to pass budgets. We need a law that puts a budget in place from the beginning of congressional sessions. Congress has been running on continuing resolutions for decades now. Nowadays, the idea of prioritizing budgets is gaining ground, for practical reasons and as a way to cool everybody’s jets, politically speaking. That way, before Congress would deal with a hot political issue—health care, or whatever it may be—it would have to have a budget in place. This solution would help a lot. Right now, there are so many places where with a single word, a verbal tripwire, folks on one side make it so the other side doesn’t even hear what they are saying. Some other fault lines feeding the toxicity include the demographic self-sorting we have been doing as to where people with differing views live—East vs. West, urban vs. rural, and this media vs. that media—the weaponizing of the internet. All of these are very real forces feeding a toxic politics.

Recently, you noted that many press and politicians see just winners and losers—the “Pelosi won and the president lost” narrative. Can you discuss?

Peery: Yes, I did lament that. But I also see the emergence of a “conference committee” approach, one that is currently gaining ground. And that is an important solution Congress is heading back to, to cloak and ease the hot button issues and the way they make deals. It’s going to be back to “I get x dollars for these projects, and you get y for those projects”—and then we go to the public with a prepared text and frame things in whatever terms works for the public. This kind of approach can work. Bigger picture, I get concerned about the goal of making literally everything “transparent”—because in practice that just doesn’t draw everyone to the table. Saying instead, “I’ll give you this if you’ll give me that”—well, sometimes like a good marriage you don’t and can’t always do that in a public place, but in the end it works. Political deals between highly opposed sides are messy, and when you go into them, you make compromises. It’s not pretty making sausage, you know. You just can’t say it all on TV.

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
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