December 19, 2017

What Does a Government Shutdown Mean for the Department of Defense?

By Susanna V. Blume

What happens to the Defense Department when the federal government shuts down? I can shed some light on this; in October 2013, I was a DoD civilian charged with helping to ensure an orderly shutdown for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

On Dec. 22, the current continuing resolution will expire. If lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement on an appropriations bill, or pass a third CR for fiscal 2018, appropriations will lapse. By this time, Defense Department planners have long since begun planning — which means the harms to military readiness, service members, DoD civilians, and contractors have already begun.

The planning alone is harmful, absorbing hours of management and senior leaders’ time better spent elsewhere, and damaging morale in the workforce. Based on guidance from the Office of Personnel Management, or OPM, leaders must determine what activities can continue during a government shutdown and what personnel are excepted from shutdown furlough. Making these determinations is more complicated than it seems. Many must be made case-by-case, which is time-consuming and distracting from the Department’s primary missions. 

Funding the government is Congress’s most basic Article I function. When they fail to do so, the entire nation looks absurdly ineffective.

First, shutdowns only apply to things funded through appropriations from Congress. Activities and employees paid for by non-appropriated funds do not shut down. These employees are referred to as “exempt” because the shutdown does not apply to them. For example, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, or DSCA, generates some revenue through administrative fees charged to foreign governments in support of foreign military sales cases; these are non-appropriated funds. Some of DSCA’s employees’ salaries are paid out of these non-appropriated funds; as a result, they are exempt from shutdown. Other DSCAemployees are paid through appropriated funds, and are thus subject to shutdown furloughs.

Read the full commentary in Defense One.

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