Center for American Progress

5 Reasons Why Careening From Near Shutdown to Near Shutdown Is Bad for America

5 Reasons Why Careening From Near Shutdown to Near Shutdown Is Bad for America

While avoiding a federal government shutdown is important, the chaos of constant shutdown threats; uncertainties about funding; and patchwork continuing resolutions are still detrimental for the government’s ability to provide services and the health of American democracy.

The waning Snow Moon sets behind the U.S. Capitol Dome.
The waning Snow Moon sets behind the U.S. Capitol Dome, February 2024. (Getty/J. David Ake)

Congress, once again, finds itself on the brink of a potential partial government shutdown, which would have immediate consequences. Some conservative members of Congress are insisting on adding extreme partisan riders to government funding bills—or else they’ll force a government shutdown. Shutdowns—and the threat of looming shutdowns—have seemingly become a bargaining chip to achieve policy outcomes, even when a budget deal has already been negotiated. While 3 out of 4 Americans believe that it’s unacceptable for members of Congress to use the threat of a government shutdown during budget negotiations, the United States is once again barreling toward a government shutdown that’s been looming since fall 2023.

Since the 1970s, the U.S. government has shut down more than 20 times—including four times since 2010—with recent shutdowns lasting longer and costing the economy more. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the 2019 government shutdown—the longest in history—cost the economy $11 billion, including $3 billion in losses that could not be recovered once the government resumed operating.

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Shutdowns are also rather unique to American government. While other countries may experience shutdowns in cases of extreme turmoil such as a revolution or major natural disaster, they’ve become an almost ordinary part of Americans’ nightly news. Even the threat of a shutdown inspires less trust in government and makes it more challenging for federal and state governments to perform their basic functions. While avoiding a shutdown is clearly a better outcome than experiencing one, the misuse of shutdown threats is wasteful and threatens the health of democracy.

1. Spending time preparing for shutdowns can preclude agencies from serving the American people

Each year, all federal agencies reevaluate and submit their plans for a potential shutdown. Every federal agency—including the Department of Agriculture, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Social Security Administration—posts a plan. Even components of the federal government that most Americans may not think about—such as the Washington, D.C. court system and the Peace Corps—must prepare. However, while these plans detail the number of staff who would be retained, they do typically not cover the ways agencies will prioritize planned work beyond securing the workplace. As with all workplaces, federal staff may have particularly urgent deadlines and goals—such as the publication of a report or the completion of a project—at the end of the fiscal year or end of the calendar year. When shutdowns loom in the final quarter of the year, as happened twice in 2023, they come at a particularly inopportune time.

The federal government is a workforce: Each time a shutdown looms, managers must take time away from other tasks to field worries from staff about pay uncertainty, furloughs, and process. Staff morale can suffer both from being deemed “nonessential” (and therefore furloughed) or the prospect of being “essential,” all while facing the prospect of working without pay for the duration of a shutdown. Research shows that workers who are deemed “nonessential” feel offended and undervalued, despite supervisors’ best efforts to reassure them. In September 2023, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks wrote in a memo to the Department of Defense:

Importantly, the categorization of employees and whether or not someone is furloughed are not a reflection on the quality of an employee’s work, nor of his or her importance to the department. It is merely a reflection of the legal requirements under which we must operate should a lapse in appropriations occur.

In addition, federal staff must spend time fielding outreach and uncertainty from government contractors and vendors about their future work and pay.

2. If a shutdown happens, the work a particular agency can do is reduced

Contingency planning is necessary because of the significant percentage of the federal workforce that can be affected by a full or partial shutdown. An element of complexity introduced by a continual cycle of continuing resolutions is that different agencies will be under threat or safe from furloughs depending on which elements of the federal budget Congress has agreed to and which are still contentious. Shutdowns have negative effects on both the quality of services delivered by government and the morale of government employees; anticipating these outcomes during each potential shutdown news cycle could lead to additional frustrations.

Even for workers who remain on the job, financial insecurity can be a distraction and an uncertainty, limiting their ability to focus at work—or their interest in remaining on the job—because they may not receive a paycheck for the duration of the shutdown. In the December 2018 to January 2019 shutdown, air traffic controllers and Transportation Safety Administration staff were required to remain on the job, but they didn’t receive paychecks for five weeks. Flights to and from LaGuardia Airport were limited due to a lack of staffing as the shutdown wore on, which caused additional problems at airports on the East Coast. Even if they’ve been promised by supervisors that they’ll financially be made whole, many workers can’t support themselves or their families without their regularly scheduled paycheck.

Depending on whether agencies are preparing for a full or partial shutdown, only some of them may be affected. But if affected, many agencies must furlough significant portions of their staff. For example, the Department of Defense would be forced to furlough 438,758 staff according to their shutdown plan, while the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board would be forced to furlough 35 of their employees—90 percent of their total staff.

3. The administrative burden of interacting with government can increase

While some components of the federal government would cease altogether for the duration of a shutdown—for example, national parks that don’t also have state or local funding would close—others would likely slow or halt service delivery but still be accumulating backlogs of those who need the service. For example, employment-related visa processing by the Department of Labor; responses to doctors who have questions about Medicare; and customer service for student loan borrowers could slow or halt. Washington, D.C., residents would be unable to get marriage licenses. “Administrative burden” refers to the barriers in place that prevent someone who is eligible for a service or benefit from receiving it. Longer wait times, reduced processing capacity, and frustrated staff all contribute to administrative burden. Administrative burdens have an outsized impact on those with the fewest resources.

There’s little data on how those who need to use government services change their behavior (or don’t) in anticipation of a shutdown: Those who are the most well-informed might begin applications for relevant services early if a looming shutdown is in the news, but many more might only read news coverage in the few days before and face uncertainty and worry about navigating the services they need, including worrying about collecting Social Security, SNAP, or other necessary benefits. The proliferation of media discussion of which benefits may or may not be available during each shutdown indicates that participants are consistently confused and concerned.

4. Americans’ trust in government is diminished

There is widespread agreement among Americans across the political spectrum that the threat of government shutdowns decreases their trust in government. Americans are often divided on which political party is at fault for a government shutdown, but both parties and the administration can suffer decreased support from their voters as a result of ongoing shutdown threats and eventual shutdowns. One recent poll found that 68 percent of Americans say that the threat of government shutdowns decrease their trust in the government, including 71 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans, and 66 percent of independents.

During the longest government shutdown in American history, which lasted for 34 days under the Trump administration, trust among Republicans in the federal government’s ability to handle domestic matters decreased by more than 12 percentage points. Democrats’ trust in the government remained nearly unchanged, having sharply declined following the presidential transition.

During the 2013 government shutdown under the Obama administration, nearly half of Americans said that Congress would work better if nearly every member was replaced. Even more Americans who identified as Republican or lean Republican said they would replace members of Congress in response to the shutdown, despite the House being Republican-controlled at the time. Following the shutdown, 75 percent of Americans said that they were dissatisfied with how the country’s political system was working. Even more damagingly, these abysmal findings followed slight increases in public trust across branches of government in 2012, including the legislative branch, which had seen years of declining trust in the institution.

At a time when Americans’ trust in government is near historic lows and the ongoing threat of shutdowns is only serving to further undermine the public’s faith in government and elected leaders, it’s imperative for the health of American democracy that the government and political parties work to strengthen the public’s faith in institutions. The bottom line is that shutdowns and the threat of shutdowns serve neither the best interests of the American people nor government and elected officials.

5. The United States’ international image and reputation is tarnished

The longevity and overall stability of America’s democracy has long stood as a beacon of successful governance and an example for the world. In contrast, the exacerbating problem and ongoing uncertainty of government shutdowns serves to tarnish the U.S.’s reputation, particularly when America is essentially the only democracy to struggle with such funding and budget matters. At a time when it’s important to project strength and certainly on the global stage both to allies and adversaries, the ongoing domestic issue of shutdowns only serves to undermine these objectives.

However, the government doesn’t have to actually shutdown for other countries to begin speculating about the United States’ increasing unreliability. In the context of the winter 2024 shutdown threat, the BBC analyzed the U.S. history of shutdowns and reported that:

For most of the world, a government shutdown is very bad news – the result of revolution, invasion or disaster. That leaders of one of the most powerful nations on Earth willingly provoked a crisis that suspends public services and decreases economic growth is surprising to many.

Many major international news publications—including France 24, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera, The Times of India, and the Hindustan Times—have also been reporting on the threat of a shutdown for months as well as the history of shutdowns in the United States. These news reports paint images of instability, volatility, and an inability to govern in the United States, which are damaging to the U.S. reputation among its allies and ripe for exploitation by adversaries.

If the United States’ allies and international partners continue to perceive the country as inconsistent and unreliable, they may express additional caution in aligning with American interests, including decoupling from China, financing critical infrastructure projects abroad, supporting Ukraine against Russia, and abiding by punitive U.S. sanctions. More specifically, Reuters reported that a shutdown could “dent the United States’ reputation at a moment when the Biden administration is trying to persuade many countries to side with it rather than its rival, China, and unite behind Ukraine as it battles Russia.” And with U.S. aid to Ukraine stalled in the midst of the extended shutdown battle, the United States’ European allies have been needlessly grappling with uncertainty in providing sufficient military support to Ukraine. This follows more prolonged calls by key European leaders to move Europe towards “strategic autonomy” and away from reliance on the United States.

See also

In addition to prolonged delays and perceived uncertainty in the U.S. aid to Ukraine, the continued shadow and threat of shutdowns interfere with other foreign services provided by the United States as well as foreign aid and humanitarian programs. Disruptions in these programs also come at a critical period when the United States is increasingly competing with China for influence in the humanitarian sphere, which inevitably translates to influence in regional and international politics.

The newest slew of shutdown threats also comes on the trails of downgrades and alterations to the U.S. credit rating by major credit rating agencies. In November 2023, Moody’s Investors Service decreased its ratings outlook for the United States from stable to negative, citing the “Continued political polarization within US Congress” as a reason for its decision. Similarly, following the debt-crisis negotiations during the summer of 2023, Fitch downgraded the U.S.’s credit rating citing an “erosion of governance,” including a “complex budgeting process.”

At a time of mounting global tensions and competition where the United States is increasingly vying with other states for international influence and authority, it’s vital that domestic issues do not detract from and undermine the country’s international relations and reputation. The increasing and drawn-out threats of government shutdowns only display a divided and increasingly volatile domestic image to both international allies and adversaries that only weakens the United States.


In order to live up to the standards of a government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people, elected leaders from both sides of the aisle must listen to Americans and stop exploiting the threat of shutdowns for meager and short-lived political gain.

Instead, they must focus on restoring public trust and faith in government institutions and ensuring that preventable domestic disputes do not undermine the United States’ aims and reputation—both among the people the government serves.

The authors would like to thank Kennedy Andara, Jessica Vela, Julia Cusick, Bobby Kogan, Robert Benson, Allison McManus, and Emily Gee for their feedback and contributions.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Lily Roberts

Managing Director, Inclusive Growth

Greta Bedekovics

Associate Director


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