Federal agencies spent $4 billion paying people not to work during government shutdowns


The last three government shutdowns — two under Trump, one under Obama — cost taxpayers billions in payments to employees not allowed to work during the shutdown.

As the possibility of a new government shutdown hangs over the nation, the costs of the last few are finally being tallied. Turns out we saw at least $4 billion go up in smoke during those times.

Because the federal government is so vast and far-flung, it took a long time to calculate the effects of the three shutdowns in the past six years. The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations spent months looking at the level of waste that occurred in each shutdown since 2013. What they found was staggering.

The largest cost to the government came from employees who were abruptly ordered not to come in to their jobs or work, but who were paid when the shutdown ended. That accounts for $3.7 billion. On top of the wages paid for no work, the federal government also lost $338 million for costs associated with the shutdown, including lost revenue and late fees.

Though that's an incredibly large sum, it isn't just money that the government lost — it's also productivity. When you combine the record-breaking shutdown that began in 2018, the earlier shutdown in 2018, and the 16-day shutdown in 2013, you get 56,938 cumulative years of missed work by federal employees.

That's right. Over the past six years, the federal government has lost nearly 57,000 years of productivity from shutdowns.

Worse, $4 billion is a conservative estimate that doesn't actually account for all the losses. The Senate report didn't incorporate cost data from the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Justice, or Commerce, nor did it include the Environmental Protection Agency. That's especially problematic because Commerce, the DOJ, USDA, and the EPA together furloughed 109,000 workers during this latest shutdown. That number represents 30% of all the furloughed workers.

Not being able to provide that data is its own problem. Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Tom Carper (D-DE), who oversaw the creation of the report, said those agencies' inability to provide data "raises serious questions about these agencies' ability to perform any oversight of [their] own employees.”

The report also made note of mission-critical duties that didn't get done during the shutdown. The Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Trade Commission investigations stagnated. The Consumer Product Safety Commission couldn't issue any recalls for dangerous products.

This $4 billion loss is on top of the $11 billion worth of damage that Trump's record-breaking shutdown did to the country's economy.

If another shutdown happens, expect to see billions more in losses — even if it takes months to figure out just how much is lost.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.