Workforce Development

The World is Watching as Government Shuts Down, says ASG Deputy Director

October 2, 2013  • Jonathon Price

Jonathon Price is the Deputy Director of the Aspen Strategy Group, a policy program of the Aspen Institute that seeks to promote high level bipartisan dialogue on critical foreign policy and national security issues.

In a new series that aims to promote the restoration of civil discourse, experts at the Aspen Institute weigh in on the consequences and policy ramifications — social, fiscal, and otherwise  — of the US government shutdown of 2013. 

This has been a rough year for our nation’s formidable civil servants and federal employees.

Following the Budget Control Act spending cuts (that the White House acknowledged were never meant to become policy), many fine men and women at the Pentagon were rewarded this summer by being sent home for six days without pay on furlough.

Now, most federal workers across a variety of agencies are at home without pay, and without even the knowledge of when their next paycheck will arrive. According to a Washington Post article, “more than 2 million federal workers will see their paychecks delayed — and 800,000 of them might never get repaid.”

The federal workers I know are dedicated, devoted, and decent people who work too many hours, with far too little reward.  They spend their days trying to find solutions to some of the most intractable global challenges of our time: Iran, Syria, and North Korea just to name a few.

But potentially for days, many of those workers won’t be at their desks, or even allowed to check their email.  About half of the 800,000 civilian workers for the Department of Defense will be furloughed. Almost 75% of White House staff will be furloughed and that figure goes up to almost 88% at the Department of the Treasury.

Our friends — and our enemies — are always watching the US closely to understand how our government functions and how it makes policy.  A shutdown sends a message that the lights are off and no one is home. Secretary Hagel, visiting the Republic of Korea, said he has been asked repeatedly by South Korean officials why the shutdown occurred and has warned that the shutdown affects “our relationships around the world.”

In these critical times, as we face incredibly complex and important challenges, it is imperative that the US government recruit and retain good people. This latest round of furloughs may cause both current employees and those who might aspire to work for the federal government to think twice for fear of furloughs, sequesters, and the constant call to shrink government. The United States should be working hard to bring the best and the brightest into government as it will surely need those minds on the challenges it has yet to face. My fear is that even if the piecemeal bills to fund the government now being proposed were to go through today, those exceptional and dedicated workers might not want to come back, even if the lights do come back on.