Reporter's Notebook

Shutdown Notebook
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Reports about the effects of the 2018-2019 government shutdown.

Show None Newer Notes

3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown

Border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, in a photo from early 2008. During a period of increasing gang violence in Mexico, and flows of guns from the U..S. into Mexico, artists had decorated the wall with gun images. For decades, population centers along the border have had sections of fence or wall. Jorge Duenes / Reuters

Today’s life-in-DC gazette: a little while ago I was in a line at a coffee shop with a middle-aged man, who from his accent I guessed (correctly) was from Nigeria. We talked while we were waiting. His was a standard life-in-our times story: He came to the US about 30 years ago. Now a citizen and small-business owner. Children all born here and in, or headed to, college. One of his nephews is a TSA screener at a DC-area airport.

“His rent was due on the 5th, man,” he told me,  of his nephew. “He covered that, but then he was counting on his normal paycheck tomorrow. That’s not going to come, and he’s got his credit card payments. And he has to keep showing up at work each day.” The man I was talking to said he assumed he might have to tide his nephew over through the shutdown.

We all “know” this is happening. But it can be easy to lose sight of how extraordinary and unfair it is. Not a single person within TSA—or the National Park Service, or the Food and Drug Administration, or the Census Bureau, or any other agency—has a single thing to do with the showdown over Donald Trump’s “wall.” But hundreds of thousands of them are being penalized and disrupted by what will soon be the longest shutdown in history.

It can also be easy to lose sight of three baseline realities of this abusive situation. Here’s the summary, with a few more details on each, lower down.

  • Reality one: As recently as three weeks ago, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to keep the government open and defer funding for his wall— until a right-wing chorus made fun of him for looking “weak.”
  • Reality two: Trump and his Congressional party never bestirred themselves to fund this wall back when they had unquestioned power to do so, during the era of Republican control of the Congress in 2017 and 2018.
  • Reality three: the U.S.-Mexico border has come under more control in recent years, not less. It’s been controlled by fences and walls in the busiest areas — as has been the practice for decades. The “crisis” is the politics of the issue, not its underlying realities.

Read on, for more details of each of the three. Or if you stop here, please keep those three points in mind.


George Frey / Reuters
From the PBS account on Twitter.

This evening on the PBS Newshour, the chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, Kevin Hassett, said this about workers who are going without pay as the government shutdown nears its fourth week:

Right now about 25% of government workers are furloughed. Which means that they are not allowed to go to work.

But then when the shutdown ends, they go back to work, and they get their back pay.

A huge share of government workers were going to take vacation days, say between Christmas and New Year’s.

And then we have a shutdown, and so they can’t go to work. So then they have the vacation, but they don’t have to use their vacation days. And then they come back, and they get their back pay.

Then in some sense they’re better off.

You can see it for yourself, in Hassett’s talk with PBS’s Paul Solman, starting at time 4:20 of this clip.  

I spent enough time in grad-school economics courses to understand the utility-maximization “logic” Hassett is applying. (“Let’s see, the workers are getting all that free time over the holidays, and they still have vacation days in the bank, so overall they come out ahead!”) And in fairness to Hassett, he was talking about the roughly half of furloughed federal workers who are instructed to stay home and not work — rather than the air traffic controllers, TSA screeners, etc, who are told to show up and worry about their pay some other time.

But I have spent enough time in the world to imagine how this will sound to people who have no idea when their regular pay will resume, whose lives and plans are being upended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their own performance and competence, and who do not consider themselves in any sense “better off.”

One month ago, on December 11, Donald Trump telling Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he will be "proud" to take responsibility and blame for a shutdown. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

In response to these past few items — “Let Them Eat Vacation Days,” “3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown,” and “Yet Another Reason to End the Shutdown” — furloughed federal workers write in about their experiences.

Vacation days aren’t the bonanza that they may seem. Last night the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, said in apparent seriousness that furloughed federal workers were “in a sense better off,” since they were in effect on “vacation” now and would eventually get back pay.

One veteran federal worker, who is also a military veteran, disagrees:

It's worth noting that even by Mr. Hassett's logic there's going to be workers that are considerably worse off, because an awful lot of federal workers carry "use-or-lose" vacation (I always did).

One of our friends did, in fact, have a lot of vacation scheduled for January that she was forced to take.  Now she's furloughed instead -- and if the furlough ends in the next month, has to take that vacation right away.  Which means she'll probably just go to work "on vacation" to clear out a backlog -- she's not getting "free" vacation days, she's getting screwed out of them.  


Yes, it’s complicated. Another worker to similar effect:

Because the leave year ended January 5, and there is a maximum number of annual leave hours that can be carried forward, some of those furloughed employees were probably using "use or lose" leave.  I am unsure whether the furlough would justify restoration of that leave for all those employees.

(My particular agency is permitting restoration, but that appears to be a agency decision, rather than a broadly-applicable OPM or OMB decision.)

From the late 1800s, the library at the State Department, during the era when the United States was building up the capacity of its diplomatic corps. That human and institutional capital is now being run down, a furloughed Foreign Service officer argues. Library of Congress

A current member of the U.S. Foreign Service, originally from a non-coastal ag-economy town like those that my wife, Deb, and I have been writing about, describes how the abstraction of “the shutdown” feels to him and his colleagues.

I could set it up further or highlight its implications, but instead I’ll just say, Please read and think about his account:

For the first time in my 20+ years as a federal employee, I won’t get paid this week.  That hurts, but fortunately my wife—also a federal employee—gets paid out a different account, one that still has a “residual balance.”

But probably not for much longer.  At that point, we’ll live off our savings while Congress and the White House continue to beat their chests and scream at one another, oblivious to the long-term damage they’re doing to our national interests.  

My wife and I have savings to cover the gap, but many of our colleagues aren’t so lucky.  The State Department stopped paying salaries this week for nearly half the members of the Foreign Service, many of whom struggle to get by given the high costs of housing and child care in the Washington, DC area.  I don’t know how many civil servants also won’t get paid, but I assume it’s a lot.  Many of them work in low-paid clerical jobs in the DC area, and they can scarcely afford missing a single paycheck.

The so-called Locally Employed Staff, aka the non-Americans who work at U.S. Embassies around the world, are still getting paid, but no one knows for how much longer.  Many of these local staff endure harassment and worse because they work for the U.S. government.  [JF note: Yes, I have seen this around the world, and know how heavily U.S. embassies and U.S. interests rely on these local workers.] Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, and should we stop paying their salaries, it really will hurt.  I suspect many will quit and never come back.

For me, the worst part of this whole thing has been the confirmation—and I say confirmation rather than realization—that few in Washington in either party care about our federal institutions, much less the people who work in them.

My colleagues and I could go bankrupt, and the institutions where we work—the very institutions that made the U.S. the greatest power in the history of the world—could wither and collapse, and almost no one in Washington would care, except to the extent that they could use the personal suffering and institutional failure to bludgeon and blame the other side.  


The structure next to the White House now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which in the 19th century was home of the State, Navy, and War Departments. The State Department is now located in its own building about half a mile away. The Navy and the War Department, now known as the Department of Defense, are across the Potomac River at the Pentagon. Library of Congress

Yesterday I quoted a Foreign Service officer who is now on furlough. He described the current shutdown-induced emergency within the State Department and other agencies, but also the long-term decline in public institutions that it capped off.

Several readers complained that the FSO was indulging in “both sides-ism,” in saying that “politicians” were responsible for the decline, rather than singling out Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. In the previous note I quoted a rebuttal to that effect.

Now the Foreign Service officer who wrote the original note responds:

I just looked at your site and saw the lengthy quote from my email.   I also saw the comment from the former Fulbrighter, as well as yours on the responsibility of Trump and McConnell for the current shutdown.  

I agree with both of you.  

I don’t wish in any way to draw moral or other equivalence between the Trump administration and those that came before it. In my opinion, the Trump administration has done far more damage to American democracy and the institutions that underpin it than any administration I can think of. Ever.  

To make matters worse, Trump has been abetted in this wholesale destruction of our democracy by moral cowards such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, people who knew from the beginning that Trump was corrupt and incompetent, yet they grinned and stood behind him in order to satisfy their own ambitions and partisan goals.  

In 2000, a Boeing Delta II rocket took a GPS satellite into orbit. In 2019, a government shutdown began degrading GPS coverage. Duffin McGee / Reuters

As you read the accounts below, remember the point that Jon Tester, recently reelected Democratic senator from Montana, made this past week on the Senate floor: If one man, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would let a “clean” budget resolution come up for a vote, it would certainly pass with both Democratic and Republican support.

Extra reminder: As of December 18, the Senate had unanimously approved a “clean” funding measure, with White House assurances that Donald Trump would sign it. Then Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, et al. began mocking Trump for “weakness,” and he turned against the deal and began announcing the “crisis” at the border. That is the backstory to the needless disruption and destruction now underway.

Here we go with today’s update. First, an underpublicized degradation of GPS coverage, with consequences for a wide range of businesses. A reader writes:

Your readers might be interested in a little-known but serious consequence of the government shutdown: the loss of the public CORS data supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (see https://www.ngs.noaa.gov/CORS/).

I work for a company that uses CORS data to apply real-time kinematics to vehicle GPS readings. The same CORS data is also used for surveying, GPS-guided farming, and a host of other applications.  All of them will now be forced to rely on private data that may not cover all areas and whose quality may vary. The NOAA data, by contrast, comes from a unique public-private partnership that has very wide coverage. It's also accessible to academic institutions and startups.

This strikes me as yet another way in which the shutdown hurts our core economic competitiveness. Your libertarian readers might think private companies can always make up a shortfall, but in this case they cannot: publicly-curated open-source data is unique.

I suspect that the impact will be most severe on startups and academic projects, which means we are eating our seed corn. Imagine if the founders of Google had to pay high rates for Internet access back in 1995, or if Steve Jobs had to pay a private company for garage space when building Apple.

I don't mean to equate this situation to the suffering of federal workers, but I think it's a distressing example of how the Republicans are willing to sacrifice America


Coast Guard crew rescuing civilians from Rocky Point, North Carolina, during Hurricane Florence in September, 2018. Because of the government shutdown, now in its fifth week, Coast Guard officers, enlisted personnel, and other staffers are working without paychecks. Coast Guard photo via Reuters

The U.S. Coast Guard is one of the five branches of the U.S. military—with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps—but since 2003 it has been organizationally part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The DHS budget is one of several being frozen or sequestered by the current government shutdown, which is now in its fifth week and the longest in history. Members of the Coast Guard are among the hundreds of thousands of federal workers not receiving pay.

A reader who is part of a Coast Guard family writes:

These are the men and women who are actually engaged in providing security to our country. These folks are literally first responders who create a virtual wall that we take for granted. Whatever we might think about airport security theater, there is no doubt about the amazing work done by the Coast Guard.

Now I've got a kid about to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy, plus I have been following the extraordinary efforts by communities, restaurants, churches, banks, insurance companies... and the Coast Guard itself, in an effort to support so many enlisted folks who are in serious trouble right now. My kid and her friends are fine but what's happening with many enlisted folks is simply horrible.

With that intro in mind, here's what I think is the core issue at hand: this shutdown is a Chickenhawk Shutdown. Like the Chickenhawk Nation, most people have no clue.

Congresspeople get paid. Retirees get paid. Active duty military get paid. IRS refund checks get processed (by people who expect to eventually get paid), and lots and lots of other services continue to be provided.

Passengers wait at La Guardia Airport in 2014 Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Back on January 7, when the government shutdown was a little over two weeks old, I wrote about its predictable effects on the nation’s commercial air-transport system.

For a  little while, things would seem to work more or less as normal, as slack in the system got used up. Then with staffing systems and individual employees under increasing stress from lack of pay, the system would try to protect itself from errors by moving more slowly, cutting the operating pace rather than cutting too deeply into the buffer for safety.

And—as the Air Lines Pilots Association warned back then—at some point the strain on individuals and organizations would become too great, and something would have to go.


On Friday morning, something appears to have given with air traffic around one of the country’s busiest airports, LaGuardia, which was reported to have temporarily closed because of a shortage of air-traffic controllers, with ripple effects on operations especially on the East Coast.

Two days earlier, people with much of the responsibility for keeping the nation’s air-travel system safe, had warned that something like this was practically inevitable, and that prolonged shutdown would soon “break” that system.

On January 23, as the government shutdown moved into its second month, the organizations representing three of the groups most responsible for safe operations of air travel warned that the safety margin is wearing thin.

Those three are: air traffic controllers (via the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers), airline pilots (via the Air Line Pilots Association), and flight attendants (via the Association of Flight Attendants). Of course they’re not the only crucial figures in this safety/industrial ecosystem—others include TSA staffers, baggage handlers, mechanics and maintenance crews, dispatchers, and  others—but they really matter. And their joint statement on January 23 was startlingly clear.

It began, “In our risk averse industry, we cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.”

Then, some details:

Due to the shutdown, air traffic controllers, transportation security officers, safety inspectors, air marshals, federal law enforcement officers, FBI agents, and many other critical workers have been working without pay for over a month.

Staffing in our air traffic control facilities is already at a 30-year low and controllers are only able to maintain the system’s efficiency and capacity by working overtime, including 10-hour days and 6-day workweeks at many of our nation’s busiest facilities.

Due to the shutdown, the FAA has frozen hiring and shuttered its training academy, so there is no plan in effect to fill the FAA’s critical staffing need. Even if the FAA were hiring, it takes two to four years to become fully facility certified and achieve Certified Professional Controller (CPC) status. Almost 20% of CPCs are eligible to retire today. There are no options to keep these professionals at work without a paycheck when they can no longer afford to support their families. When they elect to retire, the National Airspace System (NAS) will be crippled.


As noted earlier, a deal to keep the government open, and defer discussions about the wall, had won unanimous support from the Senate, with assurances that Donald Trump would sign it—until Trump was mocked from his own right flank (Coulter, Limbaugh, etc) for agreeing to this “weak” compromise. The toll mounts every day—and controllers, pilots, and flight attendants warn that it could get worse.

They could have made the deal at this point: On December 12, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer meet with Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the Oval Office. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

On December 19 of last year, as reported here, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution to keep the government funded and avoid a shutdown, while postponing decisions about “the wall” until later on. At the time there was every indication that Donald Trump’s administration had agreed to the deal. As a CNN story reported:

“Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, the current no. 2 highest-ranking Senate Republican, predicted on Wednesday that Trump would sign it. ‘He will sign a clean CR,’ Cornyn told CNN.”

But then the next day, December 20, after criticism from Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, various Fox News figures, and others that Trump was being “weak” and a “loser” by agreeing to the deal, Trump changed his mind. And the shutdown, with all its damage, would soon begin.


On January 25, Donald Trump agreed to the same deal he could have had five weeks earlier, without a shutdown. (For The Atlantic, David Graham explains that reality here; Russell Berman here; and Alex Wagner here.) From all the carnage of the past five weeks, he gained exactly nothing.

The hundreds of thousands of families under financial strain; the disruption of long-term scientific projects; the damage to the national parks  — these and  other consequences of the shutdown were all for … nothing.

By many accounts (e.g. this), Donald Trump did not understand enough about the mechanics of the government to recognize what a shutdown might do, or why the political fundamentals of his confrontation with the Democrats were skewed against him.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did understand all of that — and could have curtailed the damage any time in the past few weeks by allowing the Senate to vote on a “clean CR,” a measure to end the shutdown and defer debates on the wall. Since the beginning of the new congressional session this month, all signs have been that such a measure would pass the Senate (as Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, eloquently argued two weeks ago).

But McConnell refused all requests to let the Senate vote. As with Trump’s December 20 flip, from support of a compromise bill to dead-set opposition, his stand affected countless Americans. And was for nothing.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican majority leader of the Senate, with reporters after passage of the bill to reopen the government, on January 25. Joshua Roberts / Reuters

That the turmoil of the past five weeks was all for “nothing,” in policy terms, is what I argued in a post earlier today. After all the disruption to individual lives and collective services and well-being, Donald Trump accepted the same deal that had been available as of December 19.

Two readers write in to challenge the “nothing” assessment. First, from a former federal employee:

Your post suggesting that the shutdown accomplished nothing was true substantively; the legislation ending the shutdown could have been passed before it took place.  

But it missed the vital political point.  Donald Trump became accustomed to Congressional servility over the last two years; and he clearly expected to extort the same attitude going forward, as if the Republican defeat in the 2018 elections never happened….

It was necessary to demonstrate to Trump and his supporters that conditions have changed, and that the governing process is going to be different — including the futility of attacking government itself as a means of achieving political goals.  That lesson will be essential for future issues, including appropriations bills and the debt limit.  

The shutdown was the price of Trump's tuition; and the federal workers who suffered from it — and whose actions helped to end it — achieved something valuable for the country.