Why the never-ending DHS shutdown fight matters

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The Department of Homeland Security could run out of money if lawmakers in Washington don't reach a deal by the end of the week.

Why does this matter to you?

On it's face, it might not. Most DHS employees — including people who guard the nation's borders and airports — will stay on the job. The biggest impact will be for rank-and-file workers, who could see paycheck delays if Congress doesn't reach an agreement by Friday.


But the implications of this three-month funding fight go beyond the immediate consequences. Here's why it matters:

1. The gridlock could hurt the U.S. fiscal outlook

The 2013 shutdown of the federal government lasted 16 days and cost the U.S. economy $24 billion in growth, according to an estimate at the time by Standard and Poor's.

Things haven't gotten that bad yet, but the protracted battle over DHS funding could foreshadow broader budget disagreements.

As Reuters points out, the federal debt ceiling will be reached again in five to seven months. And by October, Congress will need to pass another spending bill to keep the government running.


The real worry over the DHS fight is whether lawmakers will be able to handle bigger funding decisions later this year, according to Stuart Kasdin, an assistant professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University.

"It should make people nervous about the debt limit again and whether it's going to be another one of these awful struggles," he said.


2. Congress isn't on track to be very productive

The fight over DHS funding isn't a good sign for those hoping Congress might do something in the next two years.


In particular, bipartisan immigration legislation — even on a small scale — seems unlikely with Republicans and Democrats locked in such fierce disagreement over DHS funding.

Republicans are hoping to use the funding bill to derail a deportation relief program announced by President Obama in November. Democrats are backing the president, however, and that doesn't seem likely to change any time soon.


"It certainly says something about the ability to pass legislation of any kind," said Philip Wolgin, the associate director for immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "If they can't fund DHS, it's hard to believe they're going to get to anything bigger legislatively."


Small expectations (Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Wolgin supports immigration reform legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but that's unlikely under this Congress. "I'm incredibly skeptical we're going to get anything," he said.


On the flip side, he doesn't see Republican lawmakers having much luck with bills to amplify immigration enforcement, either.

Waiting for long-shot measures like relief for student loan debt? Don't hold your breath.


3. Yes, national security will be weakened

If DHS funding runs out at the end of the week, the country's defenses won't suddenly vanish. Far from it: roughly 85 percent of the department's workforce would stay on the job.


A shutdown would still impact operations, however. For example, a 24-hour center that monitors cyber threats would see staffing cut by 60 percent, The Washington Post reported last week.

Homeland Security Sec. Jeh Johnson has repeatedly warned that a shutdown would make it harder to stay ahead of terror groups and natural disasters.


Beyond that, the federal E-Verify program, which checks the work authorization of new hires, would go offline.

"That will create a lot of uncertainty in states where E-Verify is mandatory for new hires," said Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute.


A total of 19 states use the program to verify the work eligibility of new government employees or contractors, but in a handful of states, the program is mandatory across the board.

In places like Arizona, businesses might worry they're breaking the law by hiring someone while the system is down. "I think it's very unclear what will happen in that situation," Nowrasteh said.


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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