The partial government shutdown that began during the quiet of the holidays is about to become the longest in the nation’s history. And on Friday, it will start truly hitting home for hundreds of thousands of federal employees: For the first time, their scheduled paychecks will not arrive.
The missed payments will represent a turning point in the three-week standoff, inflicting a damaging financial burden on federal workers and deepening the impact on the broader economy. But it would only get worse from there if the impasse dragged on indefinitely. A shutdown of unprecedented length—one that, in President Donald Trump’s words, could last “months, or even years”—would have unprecedented adverse effects on national life, reaching corners of American society that have previously viewed the constant partisan budget fights in Washington as an abstraction.
Already, the shutdown has shuttered many national parks and museums, cut off key sources of income for government contractors, delayed payments of housing subsidies, and slowed or stopped routine public-health inspections of food and environmental hazards.
If the shutdown were to continue for weeks or months, those effects would cascade, and the outcomes would be bleak: Halted payments of food stamps could force many of the 38 million people who rely on them into even deeper poverty, while delays in housing assistance could force scores of others out of their homes. Most of the federal court system will soon run out of money, and delays in the processing of home and farm loans could extend the shutdown’s impact throughout the country. Forcing hundreds of thousands of airport personnel, federal-prison guards, and other law-enforcement officers to work without pay for weeks or even months on end would further strain the system and could lead to an exodus of civil servants to the private sector in search of paying jobs, or into the streets in protest. And the ensuing economic instability could send the stock market into another tumble.
“When you have a shutdown, things start to break down pretty rapidly after you get a couple weeks in,” said Sam Berger, a former senior Obama-administration official who helped manage the 2013 government shutdown at the Office of Management and Budget. “Big programs start to run out of money. Things that people depend on run out of money.”
For those reasons, the prospect of major parts of the federal government staying shut for too much longer is virtually inconceivable—even when both parties have dug in as stubbornly as they are now. “Come February, no one will have the political will,” Berger predicted. “I don’t think this is going to be tenable over the long term, because the impacts just grow and grow and grow.” He told me that during the 16-day impasse over the Affordable Care Act in 2013, “we never anticipated a months-long shutdown, because we looked at what will happen.”
The chances that this parade of horribles actually comes to pass remain relatively small. As Berger suggested, mounting political pressure will likely cause one side or the other to fold before the worst happens. Senate Republicans have begun to waver on Trump’s insistence on funding for a border wall, and a presidential declaration of a national emergency to build the barrier without congressional approval could shift the fight to the courts and allow the government to reopen.
Meanwhile, some of the Trump administration’s recent moves signal that it would try to blunt the shutdown’s most painful consequences—efforts that could shield some Americans from its impact but that could stretch the strictures of the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the executive branch from spending funds without appropriations from Congress. Earlier this week, the administration announced that it would dip into visitor-entrance fees to keep many national parks open and at least partially staffed, following widely circulated images of overflowing trash cans on the National Mall and other iconic locales. The Internal Revenue Service said that it would recall furloughed employees to process tax refunds that would otherwise have been delayed. And although funding for food stamps was due to run out at the end of January, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the department had found a way to cover the program through the end of February.
“We’re trying to mitigate the impact of the shutdown on everyday Americans instead of the opposite, which I’ve actually seen in the past,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters on Monday. “And we’ll continue to do that in a manner consistent with the law.”
How much wiggle room does the administration have? Quite a bit, said Chris Lu, a former deputy secretary of labor in the Obama administration who is now a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. There is general agreement that the government has a fair amount of leeway to define what are essential services that need to continue for public health and safety. And paradoxically, that threshold could lead to more of the government reopening even if the shutdown continues. Lu gave the example of routine public-safety inspections on food. If they are stopped for a week or two, the impact would be minimal. But if they’re stopped for more than a month, the administration could determine that this in and of itself constitutes a threat to public health, leading them to restart even if Congress doesn’t act.
Every federal agency comes up with a detailed shutdown plan, but each department retains some discretion in determining what shuts down and what doesn’t, who works and who stays home. “A lot of this is fungible,” Lu told me. “A lot of this is a gray area as to what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable to use funds for.
“There’s always pots of money you can move around,” Lu added. “The question is how aggressive you want to be with that, and how much Democrats really want to check that.”
If it’s in the Trump administration’s interest to lessen the impact of the shutdown, it’s not necessarily in the interest of congressional Democrats to exacerbate it. After all, Democrats in the House have passed legislation to reopen the government—they’re on record trying to appropriate money for the administration to spend.
Perversely, Lu told me, efforts to mitigate a shutdown—both now and in previous years—tend to make them last longer. The less pain there is, the more tolerable they are—giving lawmakers and presidential administrations room to hem, haw, and delay. “If you really had a hard-and-fast rule that no appropriations means nothing can open, you would never have a shutdown at all, because the consequences would be so dire,” Lu said. “Because we’ve mitigated the worst negative impacts of a shutdown, I think we’ve hidden from the American people all the many ways that government touches their lives.
“In some ways,” he said, “that makes shutdowns easier.”