Paul C. Light is a professor of public service at New York University and the author, most recently, of “The Government-Industrial Complex.”
Even as the federal shutdown continues to exact an uneven toll on 800,000 federal employees and the U.S. economy, it may yet produce an even greater toll through a government breakdown that could affect large numbers of Americans. The White House and Congress are paying too much attention to the political risks of delayed tax refunds and missed paychecks, and not enough to the economic and human risks of a major malfunction.
According to my research into the most visible federal failures since 2000, the shutdown has already armed many of the same bureaucratic triggers that contributed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and led to a litany of breakdowns in subsequent years, including the 2004 flu vaccine shortage and Vioxx recall; the 2005 sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina; the 2007 Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal; the 2008 financial crisis; the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack; the 2014 rise of the Islamic State; and last summer’s failed family-separation immigration program.
Those breakdowns fall under the description of what the 9/11 Commission described as failures of policy, capabilities, management and imagination. They also involved simple errors that could have been fixed by collecting and connecting the dots of possible breakdowns. The current partial government shutdown has undermined this focus on prevention by creating a wave of uncertainty with potentially long-term damage to many facets of American life if the president and Congress do not act soon to disarm the triggers of failure.
On failures of policy, skeleton staffs are all that stands between the public and breakdowns in fighting financial fraud, dealing with the opioid epidemic, maintaining food safety and keeping air travel safe. As of this week, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network is operating with half of its staff, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is a ghost town, the Agriculture Department’s E-Verify system for identifying undocumented employees is offline, the FBI has furloughed thousands of special agents and intelligence analysts, and even after announcing Tuesday that it would have 2,200 aviation safety inspectors back on the job by the end of the week, the Federal Aviation Administration is still missing about a third of its inspectors. It is not clear how the shutdown is affecting U.S. intelligence agencies, but even a small number of exits would increase the odds of a breakdown.
On failures of capability, the shutdown began at the worst possible moment for the federal workforce. Beyond the obvious short-term impairment of capabilities caused by furloughing tens of thousands of employees, December and January are crucial months to recruit entry-level employees for the coming year. That period was almost certainly squandered as agencies first steeled themselves for a shutdown the president said he would be proud to instigate and might extend for months or years, and then as the agencies dealt with the shutdown. The young Americans they might have hired must have wondered how wise it would be to go to work for an administration that uses shutdowns as a negotiating ploy and, in any case, makes a priority of shrinking the federal government.
On failures of management, the shutdown has exposed the lack of effective leadership across the federal hierarchy. Today’s government organization chart has never had more layers, or more leaders per layer. But the Trump administration has done nothing to streamline the dangerously weak chain of command. The president has also undermined institutional memory with the slowest appointments process in recent history and record-setting White House turnover. The result is a federal bureaucracy on autopilot with limited alertness in a moment of great vulnerability.
These threats to policy, capability and management reflect a governmentwide failure of imagination. Congress and presidents have plenty of expertise in 20/20 hindsight but have shown little interest over the years in long-range planning. The Democrat-controlled House is still organizing itself, the White House is preparing for the special counsel’s report, and the scientists, analysts, planners and evaluators who collect and connect the dots have been sent home.
Ending the shutdown is only the first step in lowering the risk of government breakdowns. Congress and the president must reverse the recent spike in risk. Trump already owns the shutdown and any breakdowns it creates, but Congress must own its failure to address the bureaucratic vulnerabilities that trigger failure. Congress has not enacted a significant ethics, personnel or reorganization bill since the 1970s, and it has not conducted a significant examination of the federal bureaucracy’s functioning since the 1990s. Congress should investigate the causes of governmental breakdowns over the past several years as a first step toward repairing the federal government and reducing the risks in future high-stress periods, whether created by a shutdown or not.