Since the partial government shutdown began in late December, over 800,000 federal workers have had to make do without their paychecks. Some furloughed workers have resorted to driving for Uber, starting GoFundMe campaigns, and even selling their possessions on Craigslist. The fact that federal workers have to scramble for cash to pay for daily necessities while the government was able to delay payment on its own water bill is a painful irony in itself. Despite extensive media coverage of the ongoing funding negotiations, the cumulative impact of the shutdown on government accountability measures has gone largely unnoticed.
Many of the agencies created to monitor compliance with federal standards have been forced to operate with reduced staff. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) have all been affected by the shutdown, furloughing employees and cutting back inspections. All of these factors potentially lead to compliance failures.
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. Although these inspectors represent a small proportion of the total EPA workforce of 15,000, their absence is likely to have a lasting impact on environmental protection. The EPA’s website reports it inspected an average of 216 facilities a week in 2017, indicating the number of missed inspections could be in the hundreds.
The 2019 government shutdown is not the first time a shutdown has impacted environmental quality and compliance. In an interview with The New York Times, Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA employee who worked at the agency from 1990 to 2002, said that the 1992 shutdown created “one of the worst years ever at the EPA in terms of the numbers of inspections and enforcement.” Given that the 2019 shutdown is now the longest in history, its environmental impact is likely to be even greater than the 1992 iteration.
Similarly, after a hiatus, the FDA announced on Monday that inspections of high-risk foods will resume. With 40 percent of the FDA’s workforce having been furloughed, the inspections were unable to take place. Now, some food safety inspectors are being told to return to work without pay. Routine monitoring and inspections are still curtailed, and it’s still uncertain when they will resume.
Agencies that regulate air travel have also been affected. This week, the FAA announced that it was recalling thousands of furloughed workers back to work. Previously, these workers had been forced to stay home. The new plan increases the number of aviation safety positions considered essential from 216 to 3,113, however, none of the newly essential personnel will be paid until the shutdown concludes. An additional 14,000 employees will remain furloughed. TSA has also been impacted, leading to high rates of absenteeism for passenger screeners. TSA reported that unscheduled absences reached a high of 7.6 percent, over twice the 2017 rate. Fewer screeners has led airports to shutdown security checkpoints and put pressure on airports to accommodate passenger demand. As the shutdown drags on, pressure on airlines and airport officials is likely to intensify.
In the midst of the high-stakes battle to end of the shutdown, the daily impact on accountability and compliance is often lost. 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. One thing is certain: the longest shutdown in history is likely to have the greatest impact on accountability as well.