As of this writing, the current federal government shutdown is one of the longest on record. This shutdown is directly the result of the Senate’s unwillingness to take up a budget passed last month in the House of Representatives. Indirectly, it is the result of an impasse between President Trump and congressional Democrats on the issue of $5 billion for the wall on the southern border.
What does the shutdown cost us? Is there irreversible damage to the economy? Is it worth it to create a shutdown to get the funding President Trump wants for the border wall or, from the other perspective, to keep the wall from being built?
The most recent estimate I could find of economic losses from a government shutdown is from a 2013 Office of Management and Budget report. The report indicates that the 16-day shutdown in October of 2013 reduced fourth quarter 2013 GDP growth by $2 to $6 billion. In the private and government sectors combined, 120,000 fewer jobs were created during the first two weeks of that October as a result. These sound like very large numbers, but the reduced GDP growth only amounted to .2 to .6 percent lost growth. In December of 2018, 312,000 jobs were created in the U.S. economy, which easily makes up for any lost job growth the shutdown may have caused. This suggests that there is not much in the way of irreversible damage to the U.S. economy as a result of even a long government shutdown.
The term “government shutdown” is bandied about in the media regularly, but it’s difficult to justify this term in my opinion. Most of the largest agencies in the federal government are still humming along, including social security, medicaid, medicare, food aid, food inspection, law enforcement, investigations, and veterans’ benefits. Some government employees in these agencies are currently working without pay, but they will receive back pay when the shutdown ends.
Other functions have partially or fully closed operations for the duration of the shutdown and furloughed employees. Those employees may or may not receive back pay. Agencies that have closed are the IRS (no tax refunds will be processed during the shutdown, but you still have to pay taxes), national parks and museums, the US Department of Agriculture’s rural home loan approval system, and other “non-essential” services that aren’t currently funded.
Certainly the shutdown has a negative impact on a segment of the population. Tens of thousands of federal employees have to work without pay for a period of time and others are laid off and won’t receive pay. As a former state employee, I have a little different point of view on this. Federal government jobs are typically well-paid and very secure. The richest counties in terms of household income surround our nation’s capital. In effect, federal employees trade higher pay and lower risk of being laid off or fired in general for higher political risk. Most of our jobs are dependent on our ability to add value to the company, owners’ and managers’ ability to keep the company in business, and our customers’ preferences; federal employees’ jobs avoid a lot of that risk but have to deal with political risk.
Ultimately, this shutdown is political in nature. It isn’t about large segments of the budget, the maximum allowable amount of debt the federal government can incur (debt ceiling), or a big piece of legislation like Obamacare (the cause of the 2013 shutdown). The $5 billion price tag on the border wall is a drop in the bucket when compared with the proposed $4+ trillion budget. Put another way, the fight over the border wall funding is less than .12 percent of the proposed budget. I won’t pretend to know the benefits or drawbacks of the existence of a stronger border wall, but the shutdown itself will only have lasting impact on a relatively small group of federal employees. Most of us won’t even notice it.