You and me, we’ve lit our fuse. I don’t care if we’re born to lose. Going to infinity. Out all night, sun’s too bright, though I’m blind, it’ll be all right. Going to infinity. What does it mean – Infinity? These lyrics begin the 2009 song by the Flaming Lips, an Oklahoma City psychedelic rock band.
It seems as if a lot of psychedelics are being used by the people in the media who are currently discussing the potential “shutdown” of the Department of Homeland Security. The use of the term “shutdown” really demonstrates the power of words, and how they can be used to influence political debate. For in this case, a shutdown does not really mean what it means.
The Department of Homeland Security is probably one of the most important Federal agencies. It was created in 2002 and is responsible for protecting the United States and its territories from and responding to terrorist attacks, man-made accidents, and natural disasters. The current proposed budget being debated in Congress is in the neighborhood of $40 billion and provides funding for a range of activities including the Transportation Security Administration inspectors at airports, the Coast Guard, and customs and border protection services.
While the media is aghast that the DHS will potentially “shutdown” at the end of the week, the reality was that the agency actually was not funded in October 2013; therefore, an examination of what happened then should provide a good understanding of what might happen today.
In 2013, the entire Federal Government shut down. When this happened, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Homeland Security was forced to furlough a grand total of 31,295 employees. While this may seem like a lot of people, it represented only 13.5 percent of the Agency’s total workforce. In fact, most of the Agency’s activities are considered to be “essential” or exempt from furlough, including 81 percent of Coast guard employees, 87 percent of Transportation Security Administration employees, and nearly all U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services workers. In fact, the only components of the DHS that were dramatically impacted by the “shut down” were:
· The Under Secretary for Management, which had to furlough 91.4 percent of its 2,187 workers;
· The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which lost 94.3 percent of its 1,074 workers;
· The Analysis & Operations Office which furloughed 49.4 percent of 812 employees;
· The Office of the Inspector General, which sent home 55.0 percent of its 728 people;
· Office of the Secretary and Executive Management, 90.4 percent of whose 633 employees are non-essential;
· The Science and Technology Directorate which furloughed 95.8 percent of 469 workers;
· The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, where for some reason almost 95 percent of 115 workers are not essential; and
· The Office of Health Affairs, which lost 56.2 percent of 89 employees.
According to the CBO, the only activities that the DHS was responsible for that would see significant slowdowns or curtailment were reductions in grant programs, certain training activities, and some research and development activities.
And as far as the public was concerned, DHS indicated that impacts the public would see in the short term would be the shutdown of E-Verify services that are used by businesses to determine work eligibility of new employees, no provision of flood-risk data by FEMA, a shut down in civil rights and civil liberties complaint lines, the suspension of the Coast Guard issuing licenses and seaman documentation, no routine maintenance on aids to navigation, and curtailment of fisheries enforcement patrols.
In other words, a “shut down” has an extremely limited impact on the public and most of the people furloughed by the DHS are really administrators and bureaucrats responsible for agency operations like building maintenance. Even the offices that would be closed serve only marginal purposes. For example the Office of the Inspector General conducts and supervises audits, inspections, special reviews, and investigations of the Department’s programs and operations. While this is important in ensuring that money is not wasted, its suspension will hardly impact public safety. The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office does not actually detect nuclear stuff, but rather integrates interagency efforts to develop and acquire radiological and nuclear detection technologies, evaluates detector performance, ensures effective response to detection alarms, and conducts transformational research and development for detection and forensics technologies, whatever that means. The Office of Health Affairs does not actually respond to health emergencies, but rather provides internal coordination services to the Department.
In other words, the word “shut down” does not describe what will happen to the DHS if funding is not approved by the end of this week. Important decisions should not be based on hyperbole but on fact. Infinity – now that’s something big. Shutdown, well that’s another story.