US capitol

Paul C. Light, professor of public service at NYU Wagner, is one of the country’s leading experts on the federal service, so it’s no surprise that his new year has been off to a busy start offering data and observations to help journalists and the public understand the impact of the government shutdown.

The shutdown—now the longest on record—is actually only a partial impairment of government operations, sidelining roughly 800,000 non-essential workers in nine agencies out of about two million full-time federal employees in all (excluding postal workers and soldiers). But the impact also extends, Light estimates, to more than 4.1 million contract workers and grantees. Like the non-critical workers sitting at home, contract workers, who are largely in service jobs, do not expect to be paid until Congress and the president come to an agreement to resume appropriations.

When a compromise will finally be achieved is anybody’s guess. The sticking point in this shutdown is the more than $5 billion in border-wall funding requested by President Trump.

Meantime, fallout spreads: the appropriations freeze is bringing complications for traditional government services, from public-health inspections of food and environmental hazards to security screening.

Light’s latest book, The Government-Industrial Complex: The True Size of the Federal Government, 1984-2018, couldn’t be more timely. Still, none of his findings on the workings of Congress, the Presidency, and federal agencies quite prepared him for this now-historic shutdown.

NYU News asked Light about the shutdown’s broad repercussions and if he can predict a possible end date.

How does the current national climate compare with other previous periods of extreme national division? Is the U.S. fractured beyond repair? 

I don’t view the shutdown as a major challenge to national survival, just yet. While it may be a symptom of partisan conflict, it may actually be teaching Americans an important lesson about just how important the federal government is to the nation’s security and well-being. Much of the news reporting has put a very human face on the federal workforce. It has always been easy to criticize federal workers as incompetent, lazy, and overpaid, but the shutdown is introducing the very human toll of missed paydays for the civil servants, contractors, and grantees who help faithfully execute the laws.

Paul Light

Paul Light

What major risks, short- or long-term, exist because the U.S. is lacking a full-service government?

I worry greatly about the lingering effects of the shutdown on government performance. There’s a lot of talk about how it is only affecting a small portion of the workforce, but the shutdown is also driving fear into every department and agency, and may yet take its toll in a federal performance breakdown that will affect all of us. When I look back to major government breakdowns such as 9/11, the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, the flu vaccine shortage, the Gulf oil spill, and so forth, I see telltale signs of the distractions and uncertainty that sometimes precedes a missed signal or a failure to anticipate a threat. The 9/11 commission attributed the attacks to a failure of policy, capabilities, management, and imagination. I believe the shutdown could trigger a similar inventory of failures in coming months or years. The impact will not be over when Congress and the president come to an agreement. We’ll then need significant repairs.

What are the ramifications for higher education and research?

There isn’t a single research or academic institution in the country that isn’t thinking about the potential long-term effect of the shutdown on its own operations. We just don’t know enough about what might happen in the coming weeks, let alone what might happen next summer as we head to another shutdown if Congress and the president can’t pass a new budget by September 30, the last day of this fiscal year. We have a lot of conversation right now on how the shutdown is affecting federal employees, but the federal budget also generates more than one million full-time-equivalent jobs through grants to nonprofits and universities.

As Baby Boomers retire and the demand for high-skilled workers grows, do you fear the next generation may avoid seeking careers in federal government because of this debacle?

The shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for recruiting federal employees. Many of the government’s future students were at home [over the holidays] with plenty of time on their hands to watch Washington implode. The shutdown also came shortly after the federal Office of Personnel Management released its 2018 data that shows an uptick in federal separations, which may be confirmation of the long-awaited tsunami of baby-boom retirements. We’ve got good data on the widening skill gaps in the federal workforce—technology, research, statistics, STEM, etc.—and need the government to show that it is a good place to work. But the annual surveys of federal employees continue to show deep dissatisfaction about working conditions. Put that together with the hostile leadership at the top of government and the federal government seems to be telling potential employees that they’d be better off going someplace else.

Do you worry that shutdowns will become the norm?

Shutdowns have been a go-to tool for Congress since 1995 when House Speaker Newt Gingrich pulled the switch on one partly because of what he perceived as a presidential snub—he’d had to fly “coach” in the rear of Air Force One on the way back from Israel. And presidents often bluff about a possible veto, and continue to press for a line-item veto of some kind. The present shutdown is the exception because it has been going on for so long. It’s one thing to send federal employees home for a few days, and quite another to skip a paycheck during the winter break. I’m hoping future presidents will not add shutdowns to their check-and-balance inventory, but nothing is predictable today.

What possible good might come from this?

I suppose we might have some momentum toward minor tightening of the budget calendar, but I am struck by the fact that Congress actually got most of its funding bills done and signed last September, and we still got caught in this shutdown. But bright signs? I don’t really see any.

OK, does your crystal ball say when the shutdown will finally end?

I’d guess that Senate and House Republicans will press for action on a face-saving compromise. The latest polling I’ve seen shows that the 53 percent of Americans blame Trump and the Republicans, compared with just 29 percent who blame the Democrats in Congress. At the same time, the number of Americans who support a border wall is up slightly. That’s the kind of data that generally produces a compromise. Ordinarily, I’d predict an agreement that might include a slight increase in funding for a wall, broadly defined, at about $2 billion, all by Super Bowl Sunday, when Trump is scheduled to do a pre-game interview on CBS. Ordinarily, again, I’d predict that Trump would want something positive to say before the Mueller report hits the streets. These aren’t ordinary times, of course. I’m not sure there’s any rational calculation that holds in this environment.