I’m based in Seattle, normally the most event-free of weather events in the Pacific Northwest. We are going into our second week of below or at freezing temperatures at night, along with 8-12” of snow so far; and probably the same amount still to come. I learned to drive in Iowa, sharpened my offensive skills in upstate New Year for seven years, and now would rather not drive when this city is hit with ice under snow – not out of doubt for my own skills, but in fear of other drivers who feel that stepping on the gas is the answer. (When bad drivers do that, I am reminded of our federal elected officials.) Worse still is the impact to my students: I had to cancel classes on two days last week when the university was closed. From the forecast, it looks like more cancellations are in order this week. The City of Seattle has done an outstanding job of coordinating all city services during this time, from clearing roads, cross training its personnel, to moving homeless persons indoors for full days at a time. The return to normal is not yet in sight.
Snow and cold across the country come on the heels of a 35-day government shutdown (December 22-January 25) that the country experienced, and whose economic impacts have been estimated at $11 billion, with $3 billon of that sum unrecoverable. That over 800,000 government workers had to scramble for food and take temporary jobs to pay their bills has only heightened their anxiety about this next round being negotiated by a conference committee for signature by February 15. We’ve not recovered from that last shutdown and we are now looking at the possibility of a second one at the end of this week when funding runs out for “the Homeland Security Department along with State, Agriculture, Commerce and a number of other federal agencies that are currently operating on a stopgap spending bill that Trump signed Jan. 25.” (Washington Post, “Shutdown looms as border talks break down over immigration enforcement”, February 10, 2019) There’s little appetite for another short-term funding extension, but without some action by midnight on Feb. 15, those agencies will run out of money and begin to shut down again.
Evidently the $5.7 billion requested for Trump’s wall is not the primary bone of contention right now. Pentagon estimators are at work to figure out how to give Trump the funds he will be short on a Congressional compromise for the wall if he accepts half of what he's previously asked for. But separate from the wall issue, negotiations have broken down around the issue of how many beds Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can have in detention centers. Democrats want a firm number of 16,500 beds to get ICE to focus on containing hardened criminals rather than those who have overstayed their visas. Republicans don’t want any cap, and so talks have broken off without a counterproposal. Once again, the divide seems insurmountable, and this becomes just one more source of anxiety, not just for federal workers but also for the Congress itself.
Let’s look at one other set of challenges related to a possible second shutdown that the government has not been able to master: cybersecurity. Under John Bolton, the National Security Council eliminated the role of its “cyber czar” who could aggregate data from all agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Defense. Given cyber challenges from nation states such as Iran, North Korea, China and Russia, one would think this position essential, especially since there is currently only a Deputy Chief Technology Officer for the country, reflecting the overall gaps in appointed government positions in the Trump administration. If DHS runs out of funding again, it is not only border security or immigration enforcement that will suffer – with resources so strained and attitudes so depressed, it is hard to see how agencies like State or DHS will proceed.
In a panel discussion last week on systemic risk, I noted the convergence of physical security, cyber security and operational security at a time when technology has placed the weight of those disciplines in the hands of a powerful few. Whether it’s severe weather events, ransomware attacks or data security breaches, the chaos that exists in the executive and congressional branches leaves wide open holes in our overall infrastructure for terrorists and criminals, espionage, intrusions, and elections interference. Without the stabilizing influence of this final budget appropriation, we are vulnerable at all levels.
It's not just the severe weather conditions or the budget authorization impasse that is crippling us -- it feels like another six inches or so of wet snow with a wind chill factor has fallen on top of the ice that Congress has been clumsily skating on for the past two years.