Shut it down (for real)?

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog,, and was republished here with permission from the author.

I got some interesting reactions from my post on the potential shutdown of the federal government. Most folks were not very happy with Congress and the president and thought a shutdown would be irresponsible. Others asked “what would happen if they really shut it down?”

Those folks raise a great question. When we talk about a government shutdown and its consequences, the truth is that we are actually talking about a pretend shutdown — the political theater version. The U.S. government does not shut down. The borders are still secured. The military are still on duty. The Social Security checks still get deposited. The positions that are excepted from shutdown because of threats to national security or life/health make up more than half of the federal government. What we actually shut down are the parts of government that are important, but less urgent. The key defining characteristic of excepted positions is the urgency of the work.

That means we do not open up the borders when we have a shutdown, because people who want to come to the U.S. would rush across an unsecured border. We do not stop air traffic by shutting down the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration Air Traffic Control Centers. We do not close our ports. We do not tell our troops to stand down, and send the people who are running our military installations home. We do not send the Secret Service home and tell the president he is on his own for a few days. We continue to keep the lights and air conditioning on in the Capitol.

In the ways that matter most, the federal government keeps on working when it is supposedly shut down. As a nation, we do not have the stomach, nor are we stupid enough, to really shut it down. The consequences to our country would be immediate and far-reaching. No air travel, no border security, no military, no international commerce. Nothing. Shutting it down for real would cause untold damage to our financial system, our national security, and our role in the world.

The truth is that, whether you are in favor of larger or smaller government, you use and benefit from government every day. It is not going anywhere. We can and will debate the size of government (that started before ratification of the Constitution), but it is not really shutting down, and it never will.

Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.