The federal government won’t shut down Thursday, as looked likely a week ago — but that doesn’t mean Congress’ fiscal gridlock is in the rearview mirror just yet.
The continuing resolution passed by both chambers Wednesday only funds the federal government through Dec. 11, and settles none of the outstanding issues that have derailed spending deals until now, whether small — like the defunding of Planned Parenthood — or large — like how to budget defense spending on the war on terror.
Bottom line: The fight has only been postponed and could still bring government operations to a screeching halt just in time for the winter holidays.
Indeed, some commentators believe the chances of a shutdown are greater in December. At that point, noted Molly Reynolds, a fellow with the Brookings Institute, instead of “one big line in the sand that we’re fighting about,” referring to the issue of federal funding for Planned Parenthood, “there will be a lot more moving pieces.”
“Ten weeks is an eternity in political time, so it’s really difficult to know” what issues might arise in the meantime, she told FedScoop, but “there is the possibility that we could find ourselves back in a very similar situation as we are [in] right now” in December.
One consequence of a shutdown would be to stymie the development of new federal IT systems.
David Kappos, former undersecretary of Commerce and director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, told the Partnership for Public Service in a recent report on government dysfunction that shutdowns cripple the federal innovation process.
“[Y]ou do nothing new,” he said. “You’re on life support. You do not innovate at all. You do not create at all. You do not initiate at all.”
Kappos said the uncertainty of funding and disruption of fiscal lapses contribute to the already dismal federal IT procurement process.
“You start the procurement process on important IT projects and just as the procurement process is ending and people are getting selected, you have to stop it because funding is getting cut and we’re going to have a continuing resolution,” he said. “You lose all momentum. You statutorily have to restart the process all over again from scratch, months later. And years and years go by and nothing actually gets done because the office of the agency chief information officer is just stopping, starting, stopping, starting.”
That resonates with Rafael Borras, the former undersecretary for management at DHS, who said continuing resolutions stifled DHS’ ability to deliver on new federalwide cybersecurity capabilities and protections during his tenure.
“There have been frequent and significant breaches all over the federal government,” Borras said. “The federal government had plans for investments in cybersecurity and we could not roll them all out on a consistent basis with all of these continuing resolutions.”
One difference in 10 weeks time might be that, having been through this dance for the past few weeks, agencies should be well prepared if the government shuts down Dec. 12. The White House released agency-issued contingency plans late last week, detailing how to operate during a federal shutdown — that is, which staff are essential and must continue working while their agency goes unfunded, and who will be sent home without pay.
In most cases, agencies operate with minimum personnel reporting to perform essential functions, like public safety and national security. For instance, The Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, which houses the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications and its National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, will largely continue to operate. According to DHS’ plan, 1,770 of the directorate’s 3,047 employees will stay on board.
The intelligence community would continue to operate largely unaffected, including those within the Defense Department, as the role of those agencies can be chalked up to matters of national security.
And some agencies, because of the way they are funded, would not be affected by an appropriations lapse. According to the Executive Office of the President’s contingency plan, the Office of Management and Budget’s Information Technology Oversight and Reform program — which funds the federal e-government office — would continue to operate at full capacity during a shutdown because “funding for this program is available until expended.”
But most agencies aren’t afforded so many exemptions for essential personnel. At the Transportation Department, just seven of the Office of the Chief Information Officer’s 36 staff members would stay on board. DOT component agency the Federal Aviation Administration would keep a large staff on to work critical systems, like air traffic control and communications, but the unit would halt many of its bigger IT projects, like “development, operational testing, and evaluation of NextGen technologies,” its plan says.
In the event of a shutdown, NASA would continue to pull data from satellites in orbit and operate its mission control to keep astronauts at the International Space Station safe, but most of the agency’s employees would go home, and NASA.gov and NASA TV would go dark. So would the National Zoo’s live animal Web cams, like the famous panda cam.
Some websites would stay online but without updates — like the Environmental Protection Agency’s database of air pollution data and the General Services Administration’s support of USA.gov — but other agencies might take their pages down, like the Department of Commerce did with the Census Bureau’s website in 2013.
While the shock resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, last week made it easier for parties to strike a temporary deal on a continuing spending bill, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said this week Congress must work out a long-term solution before Boehner’s final departure at the end of October. After that, GOP House leadership — many of whom are pointing to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Calif., as Boehner’s likely replacement — may be even more immovable on the issues driving the budgetary conflict.
“I worry about a shutdown in December, yes,” Hoyer told reporters this week, the Washington Post reported.