Costs of the Shutdown

The shutdown is over (for now, since if there is no deal that the President is willing to sign by February 15 he has threatened to shut it down again) and hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors returned to the job yesterday. However, the repercussions from this shutdown could last for much longer than the 35 days that it lasted. Some agencies estimate that effects could be felt for up to a year.

Workers at many agencies need to review or even start accepting applications that have been languishing since last December. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin once again accepting new drug and medical device applications. Agency officials have acknowledged that the process of reviewing all the applications that would have come in since the beginning of the shutdown, along with any new applications could take up to a year. The FDA also can begin to inspect food again. A limited amount of food inspection occurred during the shutdown, but widespread inspection halted.

The EPA must process permits related to air and water. The agency also needs to update the enforcement actions database, which has not been updated since the shutdown began. Certification of new vehicles for meeting U.S. air standard requirements will need to be completed. Important research into harmful chemicals and toxins stopped and must resume.

The National Park Service (NPS) faces a mountain of garbage, road clearing, and additional cleanup that needs to be completed at all national parks. Some parks have experienced snowstorms, extreme cold, or rain that has made some roads impassable. It may take some time for plows to come through and for park workers to clear trees and other debris so that visitors can reach certain areas. At Sagamore Hill in New York, a fire in the gift shop back in December still requires cleanup and assessment of damages. At Mount Rainier, no snow plows have operated since before Christmas; therefore, the main visitor site is inaccessible and may remain so for days as plows clear several feet of snow from areas of steep elevation. Furthermore, three feet of snow as well as snowdrifts upwards of seven feet cover the parking lots. Additionally, the full extent of damage to the parks caused by visitors is still unknown. Journalists have noted damage to the Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, but there could also be damage to wildlife in the Everglades.

President Trump was highly critical of the State of California for failing to “properly” manage its forested areas and prevent the spread of wildfires over the past two years. However, the shutdown has canceled the controlled burns of areas, which takes place during the winter months to help prevent fires in the spring and summer fire seasons. This means that many areas will be even more susceptible to fire this year.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been unable to issue fishing permits or conduct vessel inspections since the shutdown. This could have some impact on certain boats and fisheries whose season officially began during the shutdown period. This includes fisheries like cod and pollack in the Bering Sea in Alaska. There has also been a delay on revising regulations that determine catch limits, which could affect the amount that permit holders can legally catch in 2019.

Many training experiences were lost during the government shutdown. In January and February, the National Hurricane Center, which is part of NOAA, runs one-week training programs for officials in hurricane prone areas in order to teach them how to use the information provided by the center to make important decisions such as evacuation. It is possible that the third session in February may continue, but the first two sessions cannot be rescheduled.

Just going through the sheer backlog of mail and other messages may take a long time. Agencies impacted did not reply to any FOIA requests during the shutdown and will have to make their way through them. The IRS estimated that there would be millions of taxpayer letters awaiting employees in addition to the beginning of the tax filing season. The IRS anticipates that it could take up to a year to return to normal operations.

The arts and museums did not escape unscathed. Incomplete work on installation of several exhibits led to several postponements including: “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence” at the National Portrait Gallery (originally scheduled March 1); “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths” at the National Museum of African Art (originally scheduled Feb. 27); and the Smithsonian Gardens’ orchid display (originally scheduled Feb. 2). The North American retrospective of Tintoretto (corresponding to his 500th birthday) at the National Gallery of Art set to begin on March 10 could be delayed as a result of the shutdown since the museum will be weeks behind schedule preparing the spaces for the paintings which are coming from a showing in Venice, Italy.

The NTSB has not investigated any transportation crashes during the shutdown. Apparently, there are around 100 train, plane, and highway crashes still awaiting investigation. The National Science Foundation has over 2000 research grants to review. The EEOC is expecting to have around 200 discrimination cases to review. Over 80,000 immigration hearings were canceled during the shutdown. The immigration hearing system is already overwhelmed and this added backlog could take years from which to recover.

The depth and quality of the federal workforce may be impacted for years to come. It is possible that some federal employees will look to move to the private sector to avoid the pain caused by another potential government shutdown. The length of this shutdown and uncertainty about its end has tarnished the reputation of government employment as a safe job with good benefits. Even more important, it may discourage future applicants from pursuing federal jobs.

Government workers will not be receiving all of their back pay in one paycheck or at the same time. Plans are to provide any back pay and overtime in two installments. The timing of the pay will depend on the agency. NASA, the State Department, and the Justice Department have informed workers that they will receive two paychecks no later than Thursday. Some may not see a second check until February.

The financial effects have also been enormous. The CBO estimates that the shutdown cost the U.S. a total of $11 billion in GDP over the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019. This makes the shutdown almost two times more expensive than the “wall” that the President wanted. The CBO could not even begin to quantify the effect of the shutdown on individuals and small businesses. Some people may have damage to their credit from missed payments that could last for years, let alone a loss of any savings that they may have had. The Smithsonian estimates that its museums lost $3.4 million in revenue during the shutdown.

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