The Government Shutdown Is Terrible for Transparency

There’s not just a shutdown. There’s a blackout, and it makes journalism suffer.

US Capitol Police keep people at a distance as they listen as House Democrats speak about the government shutdown on Capitol Hill October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. The US government is in a forced shutdown after lawmakers failed to pass a spending bill. 
National Journal
Matt Berman Patrick Reis
Oct. 3, 2013, 8:16 a.m.

Thursday morn­ing’s New York Times starts with a block­buster story on Obama­care:

“A sweep­ing na­tion­al ef­fort to ex­tend health cov­er­age to mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single moth­ers and more than half of the low-wage work­ers who do not have in­sur­ance, they very kinds of people that the pro­gram was in­ten­ded to help, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is of census data by The New York Times.”

It’s a ma­jor rev­el­a­tion for the na­tion’s hotly con­tested policy, but it wouldn’t have come to light without pub­licly avail­able census data. But right now, be­cause of the gov­ern­ment shut­down, that’s data that you can’t find on­line.

The gov­ern­ment shut­down comes at a ma­jor cost to journ­al­ism and gov­ern­ment trans­par­ency. It may not seem like a big deal, and it’s def­in­itely not as ob­vi­ously det­ri­ment­al as the nearly 1 mil­lion fed­er­al work­ers out of work without pay, but right now, when the pub­lic needs de­tailed, un-spun in­form­a­tion most, it’s in­cred­ibly hard to find.

This in many ways should be a time for polit­ic­al journ­al­ism to flour­ish. Mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans are likely pay­ing at­ten­tion to what their gov­ern­ment is do­ing right now in a way they typ­ic­ally have not. We await polling on that point, but it’s ob­vi­ous in terms of web­site traffic. As haz­ard­ous as a shut­down is, it’s an ex­cit­ing time in polit­ics. Things are ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing. On that meas­ure alone, the gov­ern­ment shut­down is pretty great for journ­al­ism.

But with a massive trove of gov­ern­ment data off­line, the un­der­ly­ing product suf­fers. The Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics — the gov­ern­ment arm the pro­duces in­valu­able data on the em­ploy­ment situ­ation, in­clud­ing the monthly jobs re­port — is down to just three em­ploy­ees dur­ing the shut­down. You can ac­cess old BLS re­ports on­line right now, but the site won’t up­date with new re­search dur­ing the shut­down. The BLS Septem­ber jobs re­port is due Fri­day, and it’s cur­rently un­clear as to wheth­er or not we’ll be see­ing any­thing. Why un­clear? Be­cause, dur­ing the shut­down, most gov­ern­ment agen­cies — in­clud­ing, it seems, the Labor De­part­ment which over­sees the BLS — have de­clared pub­lic-re­la­tions of­fi­cials non­es­sen­tial.

Which gets to an­oth­er journ­al­ism cas­u­alty of the shut­down: tele­phones. Al­most all phone calls to com­mu­nic­a­tions staff in gov­ern­ment, or to con­gres­sion­al of­fices on the Hill, res­ult in a prerecor­ded voice mes­sage say­ing that dur­ing the shut­down, no one is around to re­ceive or re­turn your calls or emails. One Sen­ate aide told Na­tion­al Journ­al that “we’re mon­it­or­ing phone mes­sages, but we’re not an­swer­ing the phones.” That may not sound like a big deal, but what it ef­fect­ively means is that, un­less you are on the Hill in per­son, the only com­mu­nic­a­tion you’re likely to re­ceive from Con­gress is an of­ten-use­less press re­lease. That ob­vi­ously also hurts more gen­er­al con­stitu­ent ser­vices.

And while the branches in charge of ex­plain­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down have largely gone dark, the ones in change of spin­ning it for polit­ic­al pur­poses re­main in­tact. Both parties’ con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees, the ones tasked with get­ting their mem­bers in­to seats and knock­ing the oth­er parties’ mem­bers out of them, are in hy­per-drive. Mul­tiple times an hour, they’re blast­ing out press re­leases to re­port­ers, spit­ting half-truths as they at­tempt to fire up the out­rage ma­chine.

The net res­ult: Con­gress’s shrill con­ver­sa­tion is as easy as ever to cov­er, but in­form­a­tion about the real-world im­pacts of that im­passe are harder than ever to un­der­stand.

In this way, the people es­sen­tial enough to be able to stick through the shut­down are able to vir­tu­ally dic­tate frames of de­bate. It is, in part, why we’ve seen so many stor­ies about mem­bers of Con­gress’ pay, or their stands at Wash­ing­ton’s World War II Me­mori­al (which oc­ca­sion­ally back­fire). And with few­er gov­ern­ment sources around to talk to, it turns them in­to even more of a com­mod­ity, giv­ing them even more power.

This isn’t just about it be­ing more dif­fi­cult to get some data or quotes. It’s an is­sue of trans­par­ency. Dur­ing the shut­down, Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quests are not be­ing pro­cessed. The Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion “will be un­able to provide any ser­vices dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down,” and its elec­tron­ic fil­ing sys­tem for polit­ic­al-dona­tion dis­clos­ures may not be get­ting up­dated. That’s des­pite polit­ic­al fun­drais­ing go­ing ba­na­nas since the shut­down, with the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee see­ing its best fun­drais­ing day since the elec­tion oc­cur­ring Monday. On Wed­nes­day, the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee said it had raised more than $1 mil­lion in the pre­vi­ous 48 hours.

Without a budget, gov­ern­ment is fail­ing in its core re­spons­ib­il­it­ies to the pub­lic, in­clud­ing the re­spons­ib­il­ity to let the pub­lic know what it’s up to.

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