Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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The Federal Shutdown and Foreign Credibility

by Micah Zenko
October 1, 2013

Boehner shutdown Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner at 1:00 am on October 1, 2013, after a vote by the House prompted a shutdown of portions of the U.S. government (Bourg/Courtesy Reuters).


At midnight last night, the U.S. federal government began partial shutdown procedures, which are mandated whenever Congress and the President do not appropriate funds at the start of a new fiscal year, either through an appropriations bill or a continuing resolution. Subsequently, all affected federal agencies have to stop any programs funded by annual appropriations which are not deemed “essential” under the law. This means that employees of these agencies are placed on emergency furlough, a time during which they cannot come to work, bring work home, or even check their work emails. Subsequently the Department of Commerce will lose 87 percent of its workforce, Department of Energy 81 percent, Health and Human Services 52 percent, and the Department of Defense roughly half of its eight-hundred thousand civilian employees.

The inability of the legislative and executive branches of government to the fulfill the few primary tasks that are presented in Sections One and Two of the U.S. Constitution should be deeply embarrassing for all responsible elected officials and political appointees. However, neither shame nor a sense of duty appear to be motivating forces in compelling Congress and the White House to compromise on funding the government.

What is remarkable about the tolerance for this long approaching mini-crisis is that many of these same policymakers and officials routinely assert that U.S. credibility is the essential underpinning for American power and influence in the world. Indeed, many militarized foreign policy activities are justified on the basis of signaling resolve to U.S. allies and adversaries; whether this is bombing Syria, maintaining troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, or preventing sequestration on defense budget. Moreover, these policymakers and officials make extraordinary claims about how political leaders in Iran, North Korea, China, and elsewhere will perceive every U.S. foreign policy action—always along the spectrum of “weak” to “strong.”

Why does Washington claim that demonstrating resolve in the world requires intermittently using military force, but not funding the federal government on time? For those who claimed that attacking Syria with cruise missiles was required to maintain U.S. credibility in the eyes of Iran’s Supreme Leader, doesn’t Capitol Hill’s behavior over the past week do more to demonstrate America’s incompetence? If the foundations of functioning governance are impossible at home, shouldn’t U.S. allies question America’s commitments to their security thousands of miles away? Finally, given that many foreign policy tasks require congressional oversight or approval, why should U.S. citizens have any faith in their elected officials’ ability to evaluate controversial programs, such as drone strikes, Guantanamo trials, or National Security Agency surveillance, since they cannot pass a budget?

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by London Chris

    I checked. It seems that each member of the House of Representatives swears the following Oath of Office: “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

    The bit that probably concerns those 800,000 employees now, or soon to be, on furlough is: “…well and faithfully discharge the duties…”

    Surely this is deliberate sabotage or subversion of the democratic process? Is it, therefore, a criminal act? By their actions an element within the GOP have managed to close down more completely parts of the apparatus of the US Government than many terror attacks on US soil ever could. Even a hostile cyber attack by a powerful nation state would struggle to have so profound an effect on the running of the US Federal Government.

    Now, I’m no expert but when you start making policy and legislative demands of the Executive requiring the President to submit to your will or face severe consequences, isn’t such behavior normally known as extortion and subject to investigation with the possibility of penal aftermath?

    I might be tempted to argue that those who, by their actions, compelled this Shutdown are now manifestly in breach of their Oath. If not in letter, than certainly in spirit.

    If so, are there any practical consequences to this? Or is the Oath simply a trivial form of words? Nothing but a mere ceremony devoid of any actual meaning.

  • Posted by M Yeolekar

    Going by the global impact that is anticipated and dreaded , the shorter the shutdown ,the better ; a feeling amongst global community. Fate of “Health “need not be in abeyance too long.

  • Posted by Sydney Peter

    This is what small government looks like.

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