Cutting Off Your Nose

The impending sequester won't just do short-term damage to the U.S. government. In fact, it's already hurt it more than you think.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Fiscal showdowns have become the new normal in Washington — covered in the media like horse-race politics, with a breathless focus on who is winning, who is losing, and which side might go over the cliff in a game of budget chicken. But that coverage has largely ignored the bigger story: the degree to which budget brinkmanship has damaged governance itself across the widest range of policy areas.

The showdowns, of course, are a reflection of America’s deeply dysfunctional politics, but it’s more than just the political system that is broken. The repeated bluster, hostage-taking, and eleventh- (or twelfth-) hour short-term deals — often followed by more confrontation and threats — have made it almost impossible for government managers to plan for the future, innovate, recruit, or do that most essential and fundamental responsibility required of appointed leaders — execute policy.

The sequester, a set of across-the-board spending cuts due to go into effect on March 1, is the most immediate problem for managers; in many cases it will mean furloughs and serious disruption in services. Take, for example, the plight of the federal executives charged with managing the Department of Agriculture’s meat and poultry inspection service. Last year, the department’s roughly 10,000 inspectors took more than 9 million pounds of tainted meat and poultry off supermarket shelves and out of restaurants. Since personnel make up well over 90 percent of the service’s budget, however, an 8 to 10 percent budget cut imposed by this year’s sequester will mean furloughs for as many as 900 inspectors.

Fewer inspectors, even for a few weeks, will mean postponed inspections and, ultimately, less meat on the market. At the same time, it will likely result in more tainted meat and poultry on shelves and in menus — meaning more outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella, and listeria (with fewer experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help contain and manage them). It will also mean more pressure on the remaining inspectors to do more with less.

Perhaps more immediately alarming is that the sequester will have the same impact on Border Patrol agents, transportation security, embassy security, and myriad programs designed to ameliorate diseases in Africa and elsewhere.

But the sequester is just one of two short-term management migraines. The second is the real possibility that managers will have to navigate through a government shutdown for days, weeks, or even months beginning in late March — or if the past is any guide, multiple shutdowns. Some agencies and bureaus will be shuttered, others scaled back to skeletal staffs, with little idea of how long the shutdown will last.

Beyond these immediate concerns, there are a number of more serious, long-term management ailments. For years now, nearly every government agency has been operating without an appropriation — that is, without a clear budget. As a result, managers don’t know how big their operating budget will be from day to day or month to month, making it virtually impossible to innovate, add expertise, or recruit new talent. Now multiply that burden across a range of key agencies, departments, and bureaus — from cybersecurity and aviation security to health research and drug approval. The problems with prioritization of embassy security have been well publicized since last September’s attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya; they are deeply amplified by the lack of any budget certainty. Most efforts to fortify security and modernize embassies and consulates require extended contracts with contractors and others, something much harder to do without budget stability.

The problem goes beyond budgets and planning. The assault on federal workers is also making it more and more difficult to recruit people with the necessary expertise. Adding insult to injury, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill to block a 0.5 percent pay increase for federal employees, further diminishing the government’s ability to attract talent. At best, the final version will be static pay (minus the days lost via furloughs from the sequester).

These measures are especially harmful in dynamic fields like cybersecurity, where America’s edge depends on its ability to put its best and brightest to work. China, Russia, Iran, and even al Qaeda have ramped up their cyber-espionage activities, targeting America’s defense establishment and power grids, as well as its businesses and financial institutions. They are employing an array of increasingly pernicious and sophisticated techniques — cooked up by the best engineers and computer hackers that money can buy. But as this cyberwar ramps up, the U.S. government’s budget impasse makes it more difficult to invest in expensive, cutting-edge computers and technical resources needed to combat these sophisticated probes and attacks on American businesses and U.S. government facilities and programs.

Meanwhile, as recruiting season nears at Stanford University, MIT, and other breeding grounds for technological talent, the government agencies charged with combating cyberthreats have to compete with Apple, Google, Intel, and others who offer fat pay and benefit packages — while government recruiters can offer only budget cutbacks, forced furloughs, and near-permanent pay freezes. And the crisis is by no means confined to entry-level employees. The top federal managers, part of the elite Senior Executive Service — the top career managers in all departments and agencies who are given enhanced recognition and responsibility to make government work — are about to face a recruitment impasse of their own. Most are baby boomers at or near retirement age; replacing them with top-flight people under these conditions will be an equally steep challenge.

Whatever one thinks about the optimal size of government, making sure the government we have is functional should be a commonly shared goal. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you go with the government you have, not the one you want. In the midst of dysfunctional tribal politics, and blinded by extreme ideology that is reinforced by talk radio, blogs, and emails, the use of brinkmanship has become the new norm — one that is blinding us to the lasting damage it inflicts on the basic practice of governance.

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