It is too soon to tell the extent the Congress will shoot the country in the foot — for no good reason. In any other context, this would be a felony. However, such is not the case in the United States of America, circa 2023. The U.S. Senate took a step forward yesterday on a bipartisan bill meant to stop a government shutdown in just five days. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen as the House sought to push ahead with a conflicting measure backed only by Republicans.
This country, often described as a world leader, is on the precipice of a self-inflicted prolonged federal government shutdown, likely to have far-reaching consequences for various aspects of society, and most certainly on animal, human, and environmental health, the core of One Health concerns.
The effects would be encompassing, with the diminishment or even absence of essential ongoing services, lack of regulatory oversight, and suspension of important research, all at a time when risks of old and new zoonotic diseases and severe weather events, flood and droughts, are happening with ever greater frequency. And for those who might claim there are benefits to be gained by stopping federal spending, they need to realize the shutdown will incur enormous costs to the economy, which will not be regained — as was all too clear when it happened back in 2019.
Looking at the parts, whilst knowing they interact collectively:
Impact on Animal Health
Animal welfare will be threatened in several ways.
- Reduction in veterinary services
A federal government shutdown will disrupt funding for agencies responsible for safeguarding animal health, potentially leading to shortages of veterinary services and hindering routine check-ups, vaccinations, and timely treatment of diseases – thus jeopardizing the overall well-being of domesticated animals. In particular, support activities such as food supply and service inspections could be paused or limited.
This shortage of veterinary services would undermine an already dire situation of a rising long-term shortage in veterinary assistance. A recent study predicts that the veterinary shortage will result in 75 million pets losing access to veterinary care by 2030. Pet owners will need to plan ahead and ensure their pets’ health needs are met.
- Impaired disease surveillance and prevention
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plays a significant role in animal disease surveillance and prevention. Its prolonged shutdown can impact the ability to promptly detect, monitor, and respond to emerging animal diseases, increasing the risk of outbreaks and potential transmission to humans.
There are more than 200 known zoonotic diseases that require surveillance and in May 2023 the US Government Accountability Office highlighted the need for improved surveillance and better assessment of human health risks posed by wildlife and recommended that more be done. The recommendations were addressed to the CDC and other two federal agencies, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) and USGS, that work with the CDC.
The extent of the negative impact is difficult to predict as the actual effects would depend on the specifics of the shutdown, including, of course, its overall duration but more importantly. political decisions regarding what services are deemed essential and therefore need to continue to operate.
- Diminished animal welfare regulations
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees animal welfare regulations with the aim of ensuring proper treatment and care. Those regulations emanate from a federal law, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), signed into law in 1966 and specifically enforced by APHIS.
The regulations established under the AWA are intended to ensure humane care and treatment for animals. They cover a wide range of areas including housing, handling, sanitation, feeding, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures.
With reduced staffing during a shutdown, effective enforcement of these regulations would be compromised, potentially leading to increased animal neglect of both farm and domestic animals, as well as wildlife.
Impact on Human Health
Here too the adverse impacts would show up in different key areas.
- Disrupted public health services
Crucial agencies responsible for public health, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be limited in carrying out their core missions. The results are likely delays in crucial inspections, the recall of unsafe products, and regulatory oversight, thereby compromising human health and safety.
More specifically: During a government shutdown, the FDA could have limited ability to carry out inspections, enforcement actions, and monitoring operations, including routine establishment inspections, cosmetics and nutrition work, or continue research. This could lead to delays in drug reviews and/or approvials for new drugs and devices as well as the issuance of new guidance documents.
The expected impact on EPA activities would be also more dramatic. The agency would operate with a severely reduced number of its employees during the government shutdown. In 2019, at the time of another government shutdown, Elgie Holstein, a senior director at the Environmental Defense Fund reported that the situation at the EPA meant that “communities across the country are forced to stand by while water and soil go untested, air is fouled, science is suspended, and looming threats from climate change grow more perilous.”
That statement unfortunately is equally true today and applicable to the present situation.
- Weakened food safety measures
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) ensure the safety of the food supply chain, including inspections, monitoring, and regulation enforcement. A government shutdown can hamper their ability to conduct thorough inspections, thereby increasing the risk of foodborne illnesses and compromising public health.
In 2019 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had prepared a contingency plan, and as the parent agency for CMS, noted that only CMS’s ability to control food fraud and abuse would be affected. In September 2023, HHS released a similar contingency plan, outlining what activities would continue with HSS retaining only a little more than half of its staff as of day two of a funding hiatus.
That said, Medicare coverage is expected to be generally preserved during any shutdown: This time, CMS will continue to have funding for Medicaid through the first quarter of FY2024 due to advanced appropriations. And “excepted CMS employees” are expected to be able to ensure that Medicare keeps running.
- Impaired research and development
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which fund critical medical research and provide access to healthcare for vulnerable populations will be significantly affected. In particular, new NIH clinical trials, community health centers, pandemic preparedness and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) would be among the affected health items.
In short, there is no question that a prolonged shutdown would disrupt funding, delay clinical trials and medical advancements, and limit medical assistance for those in need, thus hindering progress in human health.
Impact on Environmental Health
The impacts on human and animal health are likewise echoed in the environment, involving several Federal agencies, in particular the EPA.
- Delayed environmental assessments
The EPA conducts environmental assessments and protects natural resources. During a government shutdown, the EPA will probably operate with less than seven percent of its employees dramatically altering the activities of the agency. Operations that would continue are likely to be only those necessary to protect human life or property and projects that are funded with unexpired appropriations.
In short, a government shutdown will seriously impede EPA’s ability to carry out assessments, and potentially delay initiatives to address pollution, climate change, and other environmental challenges.
- Disrupted conservation efforts
National parks, wildlife refuges, and other protected areas rely on government funding and support for their conservation efforts.
A prolonged shutdown will hinder maintenance, monitoring activities, and wildlife management in these areas, posing risks to fragile ecosystems and biodiversity.
As noted in a 2019 article by the National Parks Conservation Association, the shutdown affected national parks in several ways, and at that time, about a third of the national parks remained closed. Some were able to access supplemental funding from partner groups and state budgets and managed to stay open, but at the cost of diverting resources from maintenance projects and regular park programs. In other cases, parks initially remained open and park superintendents later made decisions to close areas such as campgrounds and roads due to health and safety concerns when toilets started to overflow or weather conditions turned hazardous. In yet other parks, the plowing of roads became impossible due to lack of maintenance, making the parks of difficult to access.
- Limited regulatory oversight
Government shutdowns would limit the ability of regulatory agencies to enforce environmentally important policies, heightening the for potential lax regulation of industries and prospects for increased pollution, reduced biodiversity, and long-term damage to ecosystems.
For example, cleanup at 505 of 800 national Superfund EPA sites would be stopped during the shutdown. As noted, projects would continue only where “a failure to maintain operations would pose an imminent threat to human life”.
People are protesting and some authoritative voices have been heard, including:
Bloomberg Green reported (21 September) that a US government shutdown would have far-reaching consequences and imperil efforts to protect people from lead and cancer-causing chemicals. White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi warned that the effects of a lapse in appropriations would be seismic and cascade not just through the federal government but into the real economy.
CNN Politics reported (24 September) that should Congress fail to pass a short-term spending bill to keep the proverbial lights on, a shutdown could have enormous impacts on all Americans, in areas from air travel to clean drinking water.
The National Law Review has announced it is ready to issue a series of alerts reporting and monitoring the impacts of a government shutdown.
The Bottom Line
A prolonged United States government shutdown would have both immediate and long-term detrimental effects on animal, human, and environmental health. With reduced access to veterinary care and compromised public health services to delayed environmental assessments and weakened conservation efforts, the impact would be far-reaching, and some of it not reversible.
Thus, the impact on the national economy will be major and it will be felt in virtually all sectors.
The U.S. Congress, and in particular the House of Representatives which is controlled by Republicans, can prevent this: It has the power to avoid the potential consequences of such a shutdown, the impact of which will be felt across the country, harmful to all people of whatever political persuasion.
Let us hope that some modicum of wisdom prevails…but “hope ” is not a plan. Public voices need to make it clear to those who can avoid these damages, listen, and act!
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo Credit: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer speaking at the Senate (screenshot from Reuters video): He is a Democrat leader who worked in tandem with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to win passage of a bipartisan short-term extension of federal funding at current levels. Source: Reuters video (27 Sept. 2023)