Government shutdowns cost taxpayers about $4 billion, committee says

Most recent shutdown slowed economy by $11 billion

By Lauren Fox and Ellie Kaufman, CNN
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center/CNN

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A new, bipartisan investigation into the consequences of the last three government shutdowns reveals that the cost of political intransigence was roughly $4 billion to US taxpayers.

The number comes from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which worked for months to compile a full accounting of just how much time, money and effort was wasted when the federal government shut down in recent years.

Of the $4 billion price tag, nearly $3.7 billion of it went to paying workers who were forced to stay home during the shutdown.

The other $338 million came from costs associated with the shutdown like administrative work, lost revenue and late fees on interest payments, the report states.

By combining the number of days federal employees were out of work, the report estimated the shutdowns cost federal agencies 56,938 years of lost productivity.

The Congressional Budget Office also found that the shutdowns not only cost taxpayers billions of dollars, but reduced overall economic growth. The CBO estimated that the most recent shutdown reduced economic growth by a combined $11 billion in the last three months of 2018 and first three months of 2019.

"Government shutdowns are avoidable failures of governance that hemorrhage taxpayer dollars, put our nation's federal agencies in organizational and financial disarray, and pose risks to our national security," Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the subcommittee on Investigations, said in a statement.

The report totals the costs of the past three government shutdowns, including the longest government shutdown in American history that began during the Christmas holiday of 2018 and lasted for 35 days. It also includes information about the brief shutdown in January 2018 and the 16-day shutdown in 2013 during the Obama administration.

The investigators also suggest they weren't able to get all the information they wanted.

The report's authors noted that the Department of Defense, Agriculture, Justice, Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency did not hand over some "basic information" about the shutdown's costs and if they had, the report's authors note the $4 billion total would have been "much higher."

"This raises serious questions about these agencies' ability to perform any oversight of its own employees," the report states.

The report also notes important functions that were stopped during the shutdown earlier this year, including the FDA halting routine food and food manufacturing facility inspections and the National Transportation Safety Board pausing their investigations into "six major and 339 fatal aviation accident investigations, 1,815 non-commercial aviation investigations and 12 foreign aviation investigations involving US operators."

During the last government shutdown, the Department of Justice also canceled 60,000 hearings for immigrants, likely resulting in a further backlog in immigration court cases the system is still experiencing today.

The report accounted for how the shutdowns affected nearly every major department in the government from the Department of State to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, which the report said was affected because port inspectors were furloughed. The report said workers were therefore unable to "screen thousands of products including children's merchandise that could contain excessive lead and sleepwear that may violate flammability standards."

"Federal government shutdowns don't save money. They actually cost taxpayers billions of dollars," Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said in the report's release. "It's time to end government shutdowns for good."

Portman has introduced legislation to provide a backstop to end government shutdowns altogether.

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