With a nasty political atmosphere in Washington, DC, the federal government is flying headlong into a shutdown. But, government shutdowns are a complex issue, and they don’t affect all government departments and programs the same. In this article, I’m going to look at a few key facts about government shutdowns and how they’ll affect work on EV infrastructure should a shutdown happen and last more than a few days.
First, Let’s Review Some Civics
Before we get into how the shutdown can affect different things, let’s first review the anatomy of the federal government so we can see how a shutdown works. For this, I’m going to turn to Schoolhouse Rock.
Yes, the analogy of a three-ring circus couldn’t be more apt. There’s no shortage of total clowns in Washington. But, even the clowns have rules they have to live by. In short, for the federal government to do anything, Congress (the House+Senate) must make a law (there’s another video for that). Then, the Executive Branch (led by the President of the United States) has to faithfully carry out the law. If either the Legislative or Executive branches aren’t following the rules, the Judicial Branch (via the Supreme Court if it gets fought over for long enough) can order either of them to knock it off.
Yes, that’s a vast oversimplification, but it’s good enough to explain how a shutdown works.
Basically, for the government to spend money, there has to be a law authorizing the spending. Congress can allocate funds for as long as they want to, but they’re in the unfortunate habit of creating a big spending bill every year authorizing nearly all of the federal departments, agencies, tsars, and grand poobahs to do their jobs.
If Congress can’t agree on the spending bill, the Executive agencies eventually run out of last year’s money, and have to send people home. In some cases, they make people work for free, but that slavery-like practice is limited to military personnel and other people deemed essential for life and safety, and they end up getting back-pay once a shutdown is resolved.
The Department of Transportation & Department of Energy’s Plan
Federal agencies are supposed to come up with plans in the even that this happens, and given that the Departments of Energy and Transportation are involved in EV programs, what happens to them is a big deal to EV programs.
There are a few essential staff who will stay on the job no matter what, but that’s limited to oversight of extremely dangerous things like nuclear power plants, handling of fissile materials, and such. No matter how bad the politics in Washington are, they aren’t going to subject the population to radiation and air traffic disasters (at least not on purpose). But, everyone else has five days to hope that the government shutdown ends, because on day five, DOE runs out of money and its workers have a half-day to shut down what they’re doing and go home without pay until a new spending bill passes. I couldn’t find information on how long DOT workers have, but it probably isn’t more than a few days.
But, there’s another class of employees that isn’t affected by the shutdown: those funded by “multi-year appropriations.” In the event of a shutdown, there are some federal employees whose jobs are funded by laws that authorized spending outside of the normal annual spending bill.
Fortunately, the Infrastructure Bill and Inflation Reduction Act, which contains many federal EV and infrastructure programs, are part of those bills. So, the states will still have somebody to call while getting things set up for charging stations, tax credits, etc, at least in some cases.
Specifically, the NEVI program (charging station construction) is probably going to continue almost completely uninterrupted. It’s not only part of a multi-year appropriation, but it’s also money that’s already in the process of going to the states. So, state departments of transportation will be able to continue working on those projects, and anything already awarded will continue to be planned and built by whoever won the bids.
Another program I wrote about recently that provides $100 million for the repair of charging stations that are broken is in the same position. Applications could be due during a shutdown if the shutdown were to last several weeks, but the program is funded as part of the NEVI program, so the funds are still available and somebody should be there to take the applications and process them.
One Thing That Could Be Delayed
There is one thing that could still be subject to delays: the point-of-sale rebates that are supposed to start January 1st. The EV tax credits that were brought back are now supposed to be transferable to the car dealer or manufacturer who sells an EV. In practice, this turns a tax credit that you may or may not benefit from later into a discount right off the price of a car.
But, auto dealers and manufacturers are still gearing up to provide this service (and probably try to rip you off for it in many cases). To get prepared to offer cheaper EVs off the lot, their sellers have to rely on guidance from the IRS and other federal agencies. Unfortunately, those people are probably not going to have their jobs funded by multi-year appropriations. The money is there for the tax credits, but probably isn’t there for people who guide dealers on how to do it the right and legal way.
Plus, there are other ways the auto industry can be hurt, listed in this article.
It’s Complex, So We Probably Can’t Predict It All
It’s also important to keep in mind how complex the federal government is. There are so many different offices, departments, laws, and programs, and they often depend on each other for their work.
It’s possible that a program could be funded in theory, but blocked from working in practice. If you show up to work because you’re funded, but there’s nobody to keep your computer and office running, things can get sketchy or impossible. As complex as laws are, there’s always a chance that someone else you’d rely on as an exempted worker won’t be there in a shutdown, so you’d be left to play Solitaire (maybe).
So, the possibility that EV and climate programs would continue under other funding sources isn’t a sure bet. What we really need is for Congress to do their damned job and fund the government.
Featured image: U.S. Army Spc. Kyle Moore with the 46th Military Police Company, 177th Military Police Brigade, Michigan National Guard, provides perimeter security near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 12, 2021. The National Guard has been requested to continue supporting federal law enforcement agencies with security, communications, medical evacuation, logistics, and safety support to state, district and federal agencies through mid-March. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Capt. Joe Legros, Public Domain)
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