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From suspended salaries to service delays and a longlasting impact on the U.S. economy, the ongoing partial government shutdown—the longest in history—is sure to leave its mark on America.
But, as the federal closures enter their 26th day, government watchdog groups are also raising the red flag over another mounting concern: the toll the shutdown is taking on government transparency.
“There’s already a problem with the failure of the federal government to adequately explain how things are operating, so with the shutting down and reducing of the information coming out of the government, obviously transparency is going to be impacted,” Louis Clark, who serves as executive director of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), told Newsweek.
Indeed, as journalists will be acutely aware, a number of government agencies, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs (ICE) and Border Protection agencies (CBP), have seen their media offices largely go quiet since the shutdown started due to a lack of resources.
While ICE, the embattled agency tasked with detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants in the U.S., has been able to continue some of its activities, which are deemed “necessary for safety of human life or protection of property,” communication with the public is not one of them.
December 21, the first day of the partial government shutdown, was the last day that ICE’s website was updated, including a section providing regular updates on the agency’s activities, such as high-profile arrests and deportations, business partnerships and even deaths that occur in the agency’s custody.
Clark said: “We need to know what ICE is up to.”
“It is a vital function of government to let the public know what is happening in its name.”
Meanwhile, CBP’s webpage for media releases and advisories has also gone quiet since the shutdown started.
However, the Department of Homeland Security managed to release the agency’s data for the number of enforcement actions at the southwest border for the month of December on CBP’s behalf.
“Due to the lapse in funding, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is unable to publish the enforcement actions for December on its website,” the DHS said in a statement on its website.
Immigration agencies are not the only ones that have seen transparency and accountability take a hit in the wake of the government shutdown.
Of particular concern to GAP are the many agencies created to monitor compliance with federal standards that have also been forced to operate with limited resources and reduced staff, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Administration.
“All of these factors potentially lead to compliance failures,” GAP Communications Associate Gabrielle Simeck said in statement about the shutdown’s cumulative impact on government accountability.
For the EPA, the effects of the partial government shutdown could have a “lasting impact on environmental protection,” Simeck said.
“Since the government shutdown began, the EPA has furloughed many of its approximately 600 pollution inspectors and monitors who ensure that environmental protection laws are being followed,” Simeck said. “Although these inspectors represent a small proportion of the total EPA workforce of 15,000, their absence is likely to have a lasting impact.”
According to the EPA’s website, the agency inspected an average of 216 facilities per week in 2017, meaning that the number of missed inspections during the government shutdown could already be in the hundreds.
Due to the shutdown, the EPA’s websites are also not being regularly updated. Since the government shutdown began, the agency has only published three press releases in total, compared to the five or six it had been publishing before on a daily basis.
Food and drug safety
Much like the EPA, the FDA has also seen a major slowdown in inspections.
On Monday, the agency announced that it would be resuming inspections of high-risk foods after a 23-day delay.
With only a fraction of food safety inspectors being made to return to work without pay, however, food safety advocates have expressed fears over risks of potential outbreaks due to the pause in inspections.
“In the midst of the high-stakes battle to end of the shutdown, the daily impact on accountability and compliance is often lost,” Simeck said.
“When federal workers aren’t allowed to do their jobs, average Americans feel the impact, whether it’s on the environment, the food they eat, or the safety of airline travel. As the shutdown drags on, these consequences will compound,” she said. “One thing is certain: the longest shutdown in history is likely to have the greatest impact on accountability as well.”
FOIAs and whistleblowers
Clark also warned that the government shutdown could see the processing requests for information from journalists, watchdog groups and the public filed under the Freedom of Information Act significantly slowed down.
“We have a sense that FOIAs are not being processed and it is vital for us to know what agencies are doing in the name of the public so we’re quite concerned,” the GAP executive director said.
He said that whistleblowers who have shone a light on wrongdoing could also be at risk due to the Office of Special Counsel, which is tasked with protecting informers, being hit by the federal closures.
“We’re quite concerned about the Office of Special not operating during the shutdown,” Clark said. “We think whistleblowers are obviously key to transparency, so if they don’t have an office to protect them, we are obviously going to be concerned.
If whistleblowers want to come forward, they “still have the same rights to do that,” Clark said. “It’s just that the office that exists to protect them is not functioning.”
“It could well mean that, for example, if personnel actions were taken against a whistleblower, then the Office of Special Counsel would not be there to stay those personnel actions, so it can’t be there to stop actions taken against a whistleblower,” he said.
Less faith in government
Clark said he worries that the impacts of the ongoing shutdown on transparency and accountability will result in “less faith in government in the long run. And I think that should be of great concern to all of us.”
“If there’s a sense that the government is not really there to essentially serve the public, then the public is going to end up having a greater sense of disrespect for the government,” he said.
Clark said he hopes that people in the U.S. will “register their opinions” about the impacts of the federal shutdown “because I think that members of Congress need to know and the president does as well.”