Unseen Casualties of the Shutdown: Accountability and Transparency
Regardless of which side of the border-wall debate you agree with, it’s important to realize that the government shutdown is a bad thing that gets worse each day it continues. This partial shutdown is already the longest in U.S. history and there are no indications that a solution is imminent. While there have been several shutdowns in the last few years, we should not accept this as the “new normal.” Shutdowns cause far too much damage economically, personally, and institutionally to be taken in stride. Some impacts are obvious and immediate, while others can be subtle and longer-term, but no less important.
There has been a great deal of focus on the impact of the shutdown on the approximately 800,000 federal employees out of work or working without pay, and the loss of government services and programs that many people rely on. That focus is appropriate, as the personal cost to families is staggering as they struggle to pay for their mortgage, groceries, utility bills, tuition, and more. Millions of Americans face hardships as economic ripples from the shutdown expand and more critical government support programs are suspended.
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In addition, the shutdown is exacting a significant toll on programs that help keep the government honest, transparent, and accountable. These aspects of the shutdown often get less attention, likely because they seem more removed from the public’s immediate concerns, but in reality these important offices and functions exist to serve the public’s interest.
Inspectors general are a perfect example. Every federal agency has an Office of Inspector General (OIG), specifically tasked with operating as a watchdog, auditing financials and investigating potential waste, fraud, and abuse. The shutdown has essentially closed several inspector general offices and left others short-staffed despite the importance of their work.
- The Department of the Interior is completely shutting down its OIG and ceasing operations, furloughing all of the 254-person staff except for one investigator involved in current trial negotiations.
- The Environmental Protection Agency retains 5 employees, which is less than 2 percent of the 267 that normally work in that office.
- The Department of Agriculture shutdown plan calls for 11 OIG employees to remain working, which is about 2 percent of the 482 employees the President’s budget estimated the office employed.
- The Treasury Department has 25 people working in its OIG, which is 15 percent of the 169 staff the office usually employs.
- The Department of Transportation’s OIG normally employs 419, but during the shutdown only 110, or 26 percent, will be retained to work.
- The Department of Homeland Security estimates that of the 786 employees at its OIG, 270 (34 percent) will be working during the shutdown.
- The Department of Justice plan calls for 267 OIG staff, or 55 percent, of the 488 full-time employees, to remain working during the shutdown.
Congress gets progress reports from OIGs every six months to remain aware of the continual accomplishments of these busy offices. A review of the reports covering April 2018 through September 2018 from ten of the shut-down agencies found that, collectively, the OIG offices opened and closed more than 800 investigations, issued more than 669 reports, secured 620 indictments and 507 convictions, and collected more than $411 million in criminal restitution, fines, civil recoveries, and forfeited assets.
Each day that offices like these are shut down or operating with skeleton staffing means another day lost for investigations, fewer wrongdoers caught and convicted, and less money recovered.
Whistleblowers are another important element of holding agencies accountable. Despite the best efforts of OIGs and Congress to provide oversight, too often we still have to rely on the conscience of good people to step forward and expose waste, fraud, and abuse. But key offices tasked with following up on these reports and protecting the rights of whistleblowers are also shut down.
The Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal investigative agency that protects whistleblowers’ rights, is closed with only 17, or about 13 percent, of the normal 133 staff members working. Complaints can still be filed with the agency, but most will not be addressed until the shutdown ends.
Similarly, the IRS Whistleblower Office has only 6 people working there during the shutdown, which is only about 16 percent of the 38 full-time employees the office noted in its last annual report. The retained staff are only “to provide leadership and oversight of excepted activities including timekeeping and conducting orderly shutdown and recall activities.”
Beyond the staffing shortages in key offices, government activities that provide transparency and accountability are offline across multiple agencies. Agency websites, a major vehicle keeping the public informed, aren’t being updated. Most agencies have notices posted that appear on every webpage informing visitors that the information may be out of date.
These include critical public information websites like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which oversees the safety of all sorts of consumer products such as cribs, toys, power tools, clothes, and more. The Commission hasn’t posted any new recalls on its website or on SaferProducts.gov, which it also runs, since December 20. Prior to the shutdown, it was posting information on multiple recalls each week, sometimes more than one a day.
The Federal Register website, which is the official daily publication for government rules and notices, is still available but all but devoid of new daily content. The website isn’t being supported but the systems remain available to agencies for notices that are necessary to protect life and property. So even though about 75 percent of federal agencies remain open, the notices and proposed rules have essentially ground to a halt. Prior to the shutdown, the Federal Register often published more than 100 notices, proposed rules, finalized rules and other documents each day. During the shutdown, the site content has dwindled to a handful of notices each day, often fewer than ten.
Similarly, Regulations.gov, the federal government’s main portal for posting regulatory material and getting public input on proposed rules, has almost no new material being posted. There are two reasons this site has dried up. First, it relies directly on proposed rules in the Federal Register, which have slowed to a trickle. Second, even though the website handles regulations for all agencies, the site is managed under an EPA contract and that agency is shut down. It remains unclear if the Administration will grant extensions for public comment periods open during the shutdown. With the website down and several agencies shut down and unable to respond to inquiries or post additional materials, the public input process is seriously compromised.
Some agency websites aren’t just frozen, but seem to be completely unavailable due to the shutdown. Reports indicate that more than 80 government websites have been rendered “insecure or inaccessible” because of expiring security certificates. The OIG website for the Department of Commerce seems to one of those sites. Some browsers can’t open the homepage and only report that the site isn’t secure. Other browsers pull up the homepage with only a simple message stating “Due to a lapse in government funding, www.OIG.DOC.gov and all associated online activities will be unavailable until further notice.”
Freedom of Information Action
Processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests is also suspended at most of the affected agencies. FOIA is another major tool for transparency and accountability. Many agencies receive thousands of FOIA requests each month. The process isn’t fast or even entirely reliable, but every year it facilitates the release of millions of pages of government material.
Several of the shut-down agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, and National Archives and Records Administration, use the FOIAOnline portal to manage online requests and provide electronic access to released records. However, the site, which is managed by the EPA, has posted a notice explaining that due to the shutdown “continued systems operations cannot be guaranteed” and “submissions may not be processed in a timely manner.”
The Department of the Interior has taken down its online form to submit a FOIA request and posted a notice telling visitors that “no FOIA requests can be accepted or processed at this time.” The Department of Agriculture similarly has a notice on its FOIA Public Access Link explaining that “FOIA requests submitted to the USDA will not be processed until funding has been restored.”
It is troubling that transparency and accountability are on hold across a quarter of the federal government. The government shutdown is the ultimate antithesis of an effective government. The issues raised above are just some of the many reasons the shutdown should end as soon as possible. These concerns also raise important questions about how agencies can catch up on these important responsibilities when the long shutdown is over. Affected agencies would be smart to issue plans on the steps intended to handle the backlogs of investigations, requests, and other work. Congress should seriously consider providing additional resources to the shut-down agencies for these accountability and transparency tasks, as well as for major projects, to help make up for the millions of lost workdays across their programs.