On October 1, the start of the United States’ new fiscal year, thousands of federal government workers awoke to the sad realization that they would not be going to work. Their paychecks and their duties were indefinitely on hold due to the failure of the U.S. Congress to reach a compromise on funding for agencies. The immediate result was the shuttering of several federal agencies responsible for carrying out a wide array of services, while members of Congress treated their country and the world to an unfortunate and troubling bit of political drama. However long the shutdown lasts, it will have serious repercussions not only for citizens at home but also for the United States’ global leadership role.
In the immediate term, the shutdown means that many foreign service officers and others responsible for representing the United States on a day-to-day basis will simply not be on the job. Preparations for trade deals and other important initiatives will be delayed. Funding for important development and trade promotion programs will go on ice, exacerbating the already uncertain conditions created by short-term congressional extensions of spending authority. The shutdown allows for the preservation of some work that is funded through independent streams or deemed essential to public safety and national security. Still, one can imagine a significant decline in staff morale that will result from a professional’s job being declared even temporarily “non-essential.” Additionally, the absence of the range of interagency team members, whether deployed overseas or back home, paralyzes the work of embassies. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman has stated, for example, that temporary cuts at the U.S. Treasury Department will inhibit the United States’ ability to impose sanctions on Iran.
Perhaps more importantly, the government shutdown sends a very negative message about the United States’ reliability as a partner in world affairs and reduces the authority with which it can carry out a leadership role. How can allies have confidence that the country’s attention will remain on developments in Syria or Iran’s nuclear ambitions when it cannot even keep its government’s doors open? President Barack Obama was forced to cut his planned visits to Southeast Asia, thereby postponing potential advances in bilateral and multilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific. The moral authority of the United States to guide other countries on a pathway to pluralistic democracy is further complicated when a minority faction is able to cause a shutdown of the U.S. government in an effort to press for its specific policy demands. As one U.S. diplomat recently put it, “How are we supposed to promote good government when we can’t even pass a budget?”
The shutdown also provided a powerful reminder of the importance of the United States to the world economy, when small shock waves in U.S. markets reverberated even more powerfully in Europe and Asia. The already complicated budget debate is about to become even more difficult as the deadline for increasing the United States’ debt limit authority approaches in the next two weeks. This means that even as Congress tries to find a compromise to end the shutdown, it will have to increase the debt limit before the United States defaults on its outstanding debt, a development that would trigger massive damage to the global economy.
The issues on which Democrats and Republicans in Congress differ are certainly important ones worthy of robust debate among elected U.S. representatives, but the system is supposed to provide for a resolution of differences without closing the government. Decades of gerrymandering, whereby redistricting results in constituencies strongly favoring one party or the other, have led to the severe structural polarization of U.S. politics, and the recent recession has promoted the rise of political extremism among those making up the parties’ base voters. Still, the players in the democratic system are supposed to be able to do the basic work of keeping the government functioning and paying its bills, a point on which a large majority of Americans agree.
The current problem is certainly solvable and, if history is a guide, the parties in Congress will eventually reach a compromise that returns federal workers to their jobs, extends borrowing authority for a while longer, and allows for the full return of diplomats to their work representing the United States in the world. But the lessons of the shutdown will have longer-lasting effects in the minds of those who rely on and do business with the United States.
Glenn Nye is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.