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Congress flies blind during shutdown with deficit of budget reports
Not clear if money is saved or lost
One casualty of the government shutdown is that key agencies no longer are producing exactly the kind of budget information on deficits, spending and the economy that could help inform Congress as it debates just those issues.
Indeed, it’s impossible to even know whether a government shutdown will end up saving or costing money, with the scorekeepers off duty and too many uncertainties about how it will play out.
At least three major reports already have been scuttled by the shutdown: Last week, the Labor Department canceled release of the September jobs report, and the Congressional Budget Office and the Treasury Department said they won’t be completing their monthly budget reviews, which means the government doesn’t know the final deficit for fiscal year 2013, which ended a week ago.
“Because a lapse in appropriated funds has caused CBO to largely shut down its operations, the Monthly Budget Review will not be published today or during the duration of the government shutdown,” the agency said.
The shutdown also will delay another CBO report promised this month, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which studies fiscal issues. That report would have been very welcome right now — it was supposed to lay out tax and spending options for reducing the deficit.
“The irony of this whole thing is we just shut down our means to have those budget options to avoid the shutdown,” said Marc Goldwein, senior policy director at the committee.
As the shutdown extends into its second week, all sides are wondering about the political and fiscal impacts.
But there’s little certainty about the latter.
The 1995 and 1996 shutdowns cost the government $1.4 billion, according to a Clinton budget office report at the time. Translated to today’s dollars, that works out to $2.1 billion. A major chunk of that was for back pay for employees who were furloughed.
Some analysts said the shutdown this time could end up saving money because programs are being halted and there aren’t as many employees to pay. Other analysts said it takes money to shut down and start up operations.
“That makes sense because it is costing money to mothball and open things, and shutdowns involve that,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former CBO director and now president of the conservative American Action Forum — though he said given the size of the federal budget, the cost of a shutdown is “not a lot of money.”
The longer the shutdown continues, the more reports are likely to be delayed.
The problem for federal agencies is that the number crunchers have been furloughed as part of the 800,000 federal employees whose jobs weren’t deemed essential to protecting life or property.
At the CBO, only about 10 percent of agency employees are on the job. Those are analysts who are dealing with bills that are actively under consideration in Congress — which in the past week has meant individual spending bills the House has passed to try to reopen some parts of government.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said the lack of information works to the White House’s advantage because it hides bad numbers about the state of the budget.
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About the Author
Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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