House picks new speaker, but shutdown threat looms

Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson takes his oath of office on October 25, 2023. Johnson was elected after a three-week vacancy.

Newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson takes his oath of office on October 25, 2023. Johnson was elected after a three-week vacancy. Tom Brenner/AFP via Getty Images

Federal agency missions often take a back seat amid preparations for a funding lapse.

After a three-week paralysis, the House finally elected a new speaker Wednesday, with Republicans selecting Mike Johnson, R-La., for the role.

Johnson’s speakership comes as the federal government inched across the halfway mark of the 45-day continuing resolution Congress passed Sept. 30 that keeps the government funded through Nov. 17. A likely contentious battle over government funding looms, and dealing with it will undoubtedly be among Johnson’s first priorities, especially considering the previous stopgap funding bill’s passage led directly to former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster.

The irony, according to one former government chief information officer, is that even if Congress averts another shutdown — likely with another stopgap measure — there will have been real damage done to federal agencies’ performance in the coming months and countless “wasted hours” preparing for staffs to be furloughed and programs to be paused.

“Every single hour we spend planning for a shutdown are hours taken away from advancing the mission,” Chad Sheridan, who formerly served as the chief information officer at the Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency, told Nextgov/FCW. “All of that is wasted work, and it’s really irrelevant to prosecuting the mission of the agency.”

While these budget battles happen with alarming frequency nowadays, this year’s extreme contentiousness — especially in the House — puts agencies in an even more difficult spot. 

Reflecting on his time in government during the 35-day shutdown between late 2018 and early 2019, Sheridan, now NetImpact Strategies’ chief innovation officer, said he spent an inordinate amount of time first on shutdown planning.

“You’re talking about weeks or more that are wasted,” he said.

When the shutdown in 2018 occurred, Sheridan said he spent time deciding contract statuses, flattening or pausing existing efforts and basically riding out the storm. Attempting to quantify the damage caused by USDA, “rebooting” after the 35-day shutdown, he estimated it was  probably “three or four times longer” than the shutdown itself. 

But the previous weeks’ happenings and the leadup to mid-November are unprecedented for the federal workforce and the contractors that assist government operations.

“We have never done this before,” Professional Services Council President and CEO David Berteau said last week. “In fact, it’s almost orthogonal to the way we move forward, especially with long CRs in extent. There’s not even a guarantee that we will have full-year appropriations at any point in time. There’s a distinct possibility that a series of continuing resolutions could be enacted that carry us through the entire fiscal year.”