We the Partnership

Why we can’t afford another government shutdown

By James-Christian Blockwood
September 29, 2021 | Updated on October 1, 2021

Government shutdowns—or lapses in appropriations—are complicated to understand and hard to defend. Our federal elected officials are entrusted by the American public to faithfully execute their constitutional obligation to pass budgets, and individuals on both sides of the aisle agree that shutdowns are avoidable, impede government’s ability to plan long term, and erode trust in our public institutions. Furthermore, shutdowns come at a cost that we cannot afford, especially during times of crisis that demand effective government.  

Shutdowns and stopgaps are becoming the new normal

Unfortunately, shutdowns and continuing resolutions—temporary legislation that funds government operations for a limited period of time—have become far too common. Indeed, Congress has passed year-end spending bills late more often than on time over the past four decades.

The people of this country, executive branch leaders and Congress can all work together to pass new bills and budgets by upholding some foundational principles. At the Government Accountability Office, I led the agency’s efforts to develop strategic plans that served Congress and the nation. Those plans assess trends that affect government and society, and describe the agency’s work to help Congress with oversight and improve federal programs. So I understand the importance of thinking strategically and planning ahead—and recognize that both become increasingly difficult when organizations have to deal with uncertain funding and are unable to commit to long-term policies and organizational goals.

Why government shutdowns are not a good normal

As the Partnership has shown, shutdowns are bad for the people that government serves. They cause the public to lose faith in elected federal leaders, cost taxpayers billions of dollars, interrupt work and productivity for hundreds of thousands of furloughed employees, disrupt services, and impede federal modernization and innovation.  

Importantly, shutdowns—and the short-term spending resolutions often used to avoid them—also prevent government from taking a long view on policy and engaging in strategic planning on critical issues such as IT and cybersecurity.

For example, during the 2018-2019 government shutdown, the newly launched Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—which dubs itself the nation’s “risk advisor” and works to protect the country from serious cyber threats—saw nearly half of its workforce furloughed. Strategic planning and forward-looking activities, such as enacting organizational changes to stand up the agency, were delayed as a result.

In addition, public frustration with continual shutdowns has prevented government from addressing one of its most urgent challenges: hiring more mission-critical talent. For example, applications for federal work on Glassdoor declined by 46% and the average daily visit to USAJOBS—the government’s main job board—declined by 22.5% during the 35-day shutdown in 2018-2019, the longest in U.S. history.

Not a full solution but a path forward   

Government shutdowns and continuing resolutions are examples of legislative dysfunction and reflect the divided politics of our time.  

Fortunately, some lawmakers are trying to enact bipartisan legislation that would make the threat of a government shutdown a thing of the past. For three straight years, Republican and Democratic senators have introduced legislation that would keep government funded at the prior year’s level and impose restrictions on lawmakers until they complete work on Congress’ annual spending bills. This proposal would avoid shutdowns and discourage brinkmanship, and is a creative solution to a challenging and recurring problem. 

Government cannot solve our most pressing challenges through patchwork and stopgap spending bills. The time is long overdue for government to end crisis budgeting and create processes that foster forward-looking planning and sound management, including adopting biennial budget resolutions, more multi-year appropriations and the timely passage of appropriations bills. These measures would enable government to better fulfill its mission and help rebuild trust in one of our most important public institutions.

The Partnership offers several resources that help agencies prepare for a government shutdown and highlight the harmful effects of past shutdowns on our country, including our “Shutdown Letdown” report, our Ready to Shutdown tip sheet and our 100 Reasons to Stop Future Shutdowns list.


James-Christian Blockwood

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