WASHINGTON — In 2013, when the government shut down for 16 days, base daycares were shut down, military moves were delayed, commissaries were shuttered and Congress had to scramble to pass emergency legislation to restore death benefits to the families of fallen troops.
This weekend, when the government shut down for three days, the most publicly visible effect on the military was Armed Forces Network ending its broadcasts. And they resumed again within 24 hours.
After dire warnings from lawmakers and Pentagon officials about the effect of a shutdown on the military, the rather limited effects seen from the recent impasse — in part due to the short duration, and in part due to executive branch management of the situation — raise questions as to whether the future specter of shutdowns will instill any public fear.
White House officials said their goal during the political fight (separate from trying to reach a compromise) was to “minimize” the effects of the shutdown, using other available funds and authorities to keep operations open as close to normal as possible.
As a result, many national parks didn’t close. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees faced furlough, but the number was smaller than in 2013. If the shutdown had lasted a few more days, troops would have still seen their next paycheck, although subsequent paydays would have been threatened.
“It ended up not really hurting the military, but it would have been devastating,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “But as short as it was, it did not.”
In the budget deal approved Monday night, lawmakers included language which will ensure that service members will be paid during any future shutdowns in fiscal 2018, further blunting the threat of a similar fight in coming months.
But lawmakers said they believe the threat to military operations is still significant enough to discourage future shutdowns. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said even though the shutdown only lasted one non-weekend day, “I think people walked away from [it] reminding themselves of how dumb a shutdown really is.”
Officials from the National Guard Association of the United States said training for more than 90,000 guardsmen nationwide was cancelled because of the shutdown, an impact that while somewhat hidden from public view will cause significant problems for months to come.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she spoke to an Army officer whose pre-command course was cancelled due to the budget impasse, and rescheduled for after her deployment date later this year. As a result she — and other troops like her — will miss out on that training and promotional credit that goes with it.
“We screwed up with this shutdown,” she said. “I don’t think (Democrats) who supported shutting down the government heard about these effects, or they just weren’t paying attention.”
But Ernst said she intends to keep repeating those kinds of detrimental impacts, so that colleagues don’t take away the impression that the shutdown was largely without significant damage.
“If not, I think they’ll forget it in a year, because it doesn’t directly affect them,” she said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said he thinks lawmakers still understand the ramifications of halting federal operations and furloughing hundreds of thousands of workers.
“I think what comes out of this is not, ’Oh wow, we can do shutdowns because they are victimless,” he said. “I’m happy with the outcome, because we reopened government with minimal damage.”
The budget deal reached Monday funds government operations through Feb. 8. Lawmakers have until then to negotiate another short-term or long-term budget plan, are risk a second shutdown this year.
Reporter Joe Gould contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.