As the US government shuts down, here's what you need to know

The U.S. Capitol Building. Photo by: Adam Chandler / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — Congress and President Donald Trump have failed to reach a budget deal, forcing a partial government shutdown that takes effect on Saturday Dec. 22, 2018, and will have immediate consequences on foreign aid personnel, as well as long-term impacts on aid effectiveness.

In advance of the shutdown, the U.S. Agency for International Development released some guidance on what it would mean, noting that the agency does not have sufficient operating expenses to continue operations and that about half of the 3,100 staff will be furloughed. Some 1,660 employees at USAID are exempt from the furlough — those who are funded through mechanisms other than annual appropriations; employees whose jobs are considered necessary for the protection of life and property or necessary to carry out the president’s constitutional duties; or those who are authorized because of their connection to operations that will continue.

Furloughed employees should not report to work or access the agency’s network, including from a mobile device. They are advised to “monitor the news for information” about a budget deal, after which they should report back to work. The partial shutdown could also spell bad news for those employees planning to take time off the week of Christmas as no annual or sick leave can be taken during the furlough period. In the past, Congress has paid federal employees backpay for furloughs forced by a shut down, but it is not clear if that would happen in this case.

“Every day a shutdown continues, costs go up and implications [are greater].”

— Alan Chvotkin, Professional Services Council executive vice president and counsel

Existing contracts that have previously appropriated funding should continue to operate unless USAID instructs them that they are not able to “provide adequate oversight of contract performance.” Grants should operate similarly. Funding allocated during a shutdown has to meet a set of rules: that it is deemed necessary in the shutdown plan or to protect government property or human safety; when there are already appropriated funds; and when the existing staffing can administer the activities.

The lead up to this shutdown has been marked by partisanship and shifting positions, and it is unclear how long a shutdown would last. A deal could be struck over the weekend, or the shutdown could extend until after the new year in 2019, when a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives is in place.

Alan Chvotkin, Professional Services Council executive vice president and counsel, said he thinks there may be an agreement by midnight Sunday, and that he’s always optimistic that a new deal will be struck — but he said “the pathway is less clear.”

This shutdown is also historic, he said, because there have never been three shutdowns in one calendar year. One of those was just a 9-hour technical shutdown when there was a gap in available funds.

“Every day a shutdown continues, costs go up and implications [are greater],” he said.

The biggest impact of a shutdown in practical terms is on any new programs or new programs waiting to be awarded, Chvotkin said. His guidance to private services contractors with ongoing and existing contracts is to continue working unless they are told to stop working.

While contractors and NGOs can continue to carry out programs with existing funds, the amount of oversight, interaction with USAID staff, and payment processing will decline.

“This type of volatility makes it harder to sustain a more diverse set [of] partners because of the variance resources across partners to deal with this unpredictability.”

— Noam Unger, InterAction vice president of development policy, advocacy, and learning

While immediate disruption may be somewhat limited, the back and forth of consistent budget battles — regardless of the length of a shutdown — is detrimental to the effective and efficient delivery of aid programs, said Noam Unger, InterAction vice president of development policy, advocacy, and learning.

These shutdowns reduce the quality and effectiveness of aid programs because it results in “the kind of uncertainty, volatility that is detrimental to good planning,” he said.

These shutdowns also work counter to USAID’s efforts to change the way it works with partners and the types of partners it works with. To have truly effective programs, a greater exchange between partners and USAID staff is necessary, and that is hindered by a shutdown. Moreover as aid programs look to work more with local partners, those organizations may be less equipped to withstand potential financial challenges that could come with a shutdown.  

“On one hand USAID is actually taking strides to diversify and improve the diversity of partnering entities it works with. On the other hand, this type of volatility makes it harder to sustain a more diverse set [of] partners because of the variance resources across partners to deal with this unpredictability,” Unger said.

About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.