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Government Shutdown Creates Risks, Both Financial and Physical

February 01, 2019
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For the past month and a half, Americans have navigated the longest government shutdown in the history of this nation. On December 22, it became evident that a crisis was at hand. A spending bill needed to be passed in order to keep the government open and functioning. President Trump demanded billions of dollars to fund his border wall (a campaign promise he is keen to keep), but lawmakers, especially Democrats, refused to accept any government spending on a measure they considered wasteful. The shutdown continued over the holidays, with no likely compromise in sight. In the meantime, thousands of federal workers were furloughed. Other federal workers, deemed “essential” to the functioning of the US economy, were asked to work without pay. They would receive back pay at the resolution of the crisis but would have to make ends meet until that time. (It remains to be seen whether private contractors who deal with the federal government will receive any compensation for the month-plus they missed out on work.) Many of these workers were middle-class Americans, without significant and accessible savings to fall back on.

On January 19, the shutdown was finally resolved with a surprise announcement by President Trump. While no funding had yet been appropriated for a border wall, the president agreed to sign a bill funding the government for the next three weeks while lawmakers worked to reach a compromise on border security issues. He continued to insist that border wall funding would still be necessary, but he was willing to open the government long enough to pay workers, many of whom were now struggling to pay bills and feed their families. [1] By the end of the shutdown, the government had been stymied for a whopping 35 days, making it the longest shutdown in American history. [2] By the time the shutdown was resolved, the average federal worker had missed more than $5,000 in wages – a significant amount of money for most middle-income American families, and a devastating hit for the many federal employees who live paycheck-to-paycheck. [3]

While the shutdown was inconvenient for many, in some areas, it raised the risk of bodily injury. Take, for example, air traffic controllers. These public servants are responsible for bringing passenger aircraft safely in and out of busy airports. They are responsible for the lives of thousands of travelers every day, though their presence is rarely noticed by the average ticket-holder. These vital federal employees were asked to work without pay throughout the shutdown period. While most air traffic controllers continued to show up throughout the shutdown, a concerning number of them began calling in sick as the shutdown dragged on. This created an increased potential for unsafe airport conditions. [4]

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers were similarly affected by the shutdown. They are federal workers who are deemed necessary, so they were expected to show up at work despite a month-long payroll delay. TSA agents are responsible for screening baggage for all commercial flight passengers. So many TSA agents, who are among the lowest-paid federal employees, started calling in sick that a coordinated walk-out was suspected. This meant fewer agents checking bags and ensuring the safety of passengers. While the lack of TSA agents didn’t result in any injuries to passengers, there were significant flight delays at airport security checkpoints across the nation. [5]

A particularly scary aspect of the government shutdown was its effect on food inspections and aid. During the shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration stopped its routine inspections of fruits, vegetables, seafood, and other foods that carry a high risk of contamination. Americans have only just recovered from the great romaine lettuce scare of 2018 – who knows when our next salmonella outbreak will hit? The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for meat quality inspections, and its staffing was also impacted. For those Americans receiving food assistance in the form of food stamps, benefits continued through January despite the shutdown, as did child nutrition programs, such as school lunch and breakfast programs. [6] But different states manage their programs differently, and in some places benefits were at risk of being cut off if the shutdown didn’t end soon.

Another role of the FDA that could have been affected by the shutdown is its responsibility for approving new drugs. If the shutdown had lasted until February 8, the FDA’s ability to fulfill this role would have ceased, meaning sick Americans looking for new treatments would have been out of luck. Many innovative new compounds were in the pipeline and might have been delayed had the shutdown lasted longer. Some of these drugs are the only hope for terminal patients. Lives were literally on the line. [7]

While the temporary spending bill was a relief to many federal workers and Americans as a whole, this nightmare scenario could be revisited in just a few weeks. President Trump only gave Congress three weeks to negotiate a compromise. On February 15, if an agreement has not been reached, we may find ourselves in part two of a longer shutdown. Air traffic controllers may again be working without pay and may begin calling in sick, increasing the risk of catastrophic airplane crashes at takeoff and landing. TSA agents may stay home as well or begin looking for other work, causing massive delays in air travel and potentially allowing individuals who would seek to hurt other passengers through security and onto a commercial flight. The next salmonella outbreak may be missed, leading to discomfort for many and life-threatening illness for the frail and vulnerable. Finally, a revolutionary new cancer drug may gather dust at a research facility, rather than meeting the sick patients for whom it is their best hope for a long and happy life. For many Americans, this shutdown goes beyond partisan politics. It has a direct and profound affect on our physical well-being. We can only pray that a long-term solution will be found before the February 15 deadline. We cannot afford another shutdown.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/01/19/government-shutdown-timeline-how-we-got-here...

[2] https://www.businessinsider.com/history-of-government-shutdowns-in-congress-2018-1

[3] http://fortune.com/2019/01/16/federal-worker-missed-wages-government-shutdown

[4] https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-news/air-traffic-controllers-union-safety-statement-governme...

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/us/whats-affected-government-shutdown.html

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/us/whats-affected-government-shutdown.html

[7] https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/16/health/shutdown-fda-new-drug-approval/index.html






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