Past 3 US Government Shutdowns Cost Nearly $4 Billion, Report Shows

September 18, 2019 Updated: September 18, 2019

WASHINGTON—The last three federal government shutdowns cost taxpayers almost $4 billion, reduced the national economy by $11 billion, and caused almost 57,000 lost man-hours of productivity, according to a new report by a Senate subcommittee.

“Federal workers were furloughed and unable to work for 52 days during those three government shutdowns,” said the report by the bipartisan staff of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs permanent subcommittee on investigations.

“The subcommittee surveyed 26 federal agencies and found the last three government shutdowns cost taxpayers nearly $4 billion—at least $3.7 billion in back pay to furloughed federal workers,” the report said.

Another $338 million “in other costs associated with the shutdowns, including extra administrative work, lost revenue, and late fees on interest payments,” the report said.

When all of the data received was assessed, “the combined total of furlough days during all three shutdowns was about 14,859,144, representing an estimated 56,938 years of lost productivity for those agency employees.”

The report only examined data concerning shutdowns in 2014, 2018 and 2019, but continuing resolutions (CR)—temporary agreements to keep the government open at current funding levels to a date certain—have become increasingly frequent in recent years.

“Since 1997, Congress has passed 117 CRs to temporarily fund the government, often passing multiple CRs each fiscal year. The CRs have ranged in duration from one day to the entire fiscal year,” the report said.

The total costs of the three shutdowns in the past five years, however, were likely much higher, the report said, than the report’s estimates, for two reasons.

First, a number of large agencies, including the departments of Defense, Agriculture, Justice, and Commerce, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, didn’t provide data to the subcommittee.

Second, despite repeated efforts to improve data collection on the costs of government shutdowns since 1981, departments and agencies are still unable to do so accurately and comprehensively.

“In examining the costs and effects of the [fiscal year] 2014, 2018, and 2019 shutdowns, the subcommittee found that it was difficult to obtain actual quantitative data on the costs and effects of shutdowns,” the report said.

“The subcommittee has determined that this type of data still—after almost 40 years—is ‘[not] readily available [or] easily obtainable,’ even from the primary source—the agencies themselves,” the report said, recalling the words of a 1981 Government Accountability Office (GAO) analysis.

“This report reaffirms what I’ve always said: Federal government shutdowns don’t save money, they actually cost taxpayers billions of dollars,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is chairman of the subcommittee, said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.

“It’s time to end government shutdowns for good. I’ve introduced legislation to accomplish that goal and ensure we avoid disruptions that ultimately hurt taxpayers and our economy,” Portman said.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, pointed out in the statement that another costly shutdown could be coming soon if Congress and President Donald Trump are again unable to agree on a federal budget for 2020.

“I hope this report serves as a reminder to the president and Congress about the real consequences and costs to taxpayers when we do not do our jobs,” Carper said. “Now, Congress has three few weeks to work together to fund the government to avoid another shutdown.”

Carper said members of both major political parties in Congress “must come together, stop governing through continuing resolutions that are woefully inefficient, and do our most basic job by ensuring that our government has the funds it needs to operate.”

Among the examples of problems created by shutdowns, the subcommittee report noted these:

  • The DOJ canceled an estimated 60,000 hearings for non-detained aliens scheduled during the 2019 shutdown.
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was forced to delay maintenance of facilities essential to core law enforcement functions, including at the U.S. Southern border with Mexico and at other points across the country where immigration processes are conducted.

“The lack of these critical maintenance and repair services endangered the lives of law enforcement officers and created significant border security vulnerabilities,” according to the report.

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) had to suspend its tracking of potentially unsafe products to keep them off the market. All CPSC import surveillance activities were suspended; no potentially dangerous shipments from abroad were stopped at U.S. ports because CPSC port inspectors were furloughed, and unable to screen thousands of products, including children’s merchandise that could contain excessive lead and sleepwear that may violate flammability standards.
  • National parks were without much-needed personnel. “The lack of park attendants and rangers left sensitive habitats vulnerable to damage. Nor were park rangers on site to help lost or injured park visitors,” the report said.

Earlier this year, Trump and congressional leaders agreed on a two-year deal on federal spending through the 2020 campaign. Doubts persist, though, about whether officials have the will to control government expenditures over the long term.

Contact Mark Tapscott at