On January 25, Congress and President Trump finally reached an agreement to end the 35-day government shutdown, a lapse in funding that topped the previous record-long 21-day closure of 1995. Federal workers would once again be paid, and receive the back pay they went without during the shutdown. The public depending on the work of the federal government – i.e., everyone – could once again board flights and consume food with relative confidence in their safety, visit Smithsonian museums, tour national parks without wading through mounds of garbage, and celebrate the resumption of countless other federal services that are often taken for granted until they’re not there anymore. The reprieve was, however, guaranteed to last only three weeks while Congress and the White House negotiated over border security, including the issue that precipitated the shutdown: Trump’s demand for a border wall.
The media was full of stories of the hardships of federal employees who went without pay for more than a month – some of them waiting at home, some of them required to work (the only employees in the country required to work without pay, arguably a violation of the 13th Amendment to the constitution). Unpaid employees struggled to pay rent, mortgages and medical bills; resorted to charity pantries for food; and took gig-economy jobs to earn desperately needed cash. The Coast Guard advised its members – the only active-duty military on unpaid status – to cope by picking up babysitting jobs, selling off their possessions at garage sales and, if that didn’t suffice, declaring bankruptcy. Once the news media caught wind of the guidance the Coast Guard pulled the document from its website. The lack of empathy from Trump and his gang was stunning: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross suggested that unpaid workers take out bank loans, while the Trumpster himself merely advised feds to “make adjustments” to their sudden poverty.
Both federal workers and the country at large suffered genuine harm during the shutdown. But perhaps the greatest long-term damage from the episode will be a fully intentional goal of the Trump administration: the continued erosion of the civil service and the public’s trust in government.
For the full two years of this administration, Trump and his appointees have resumed previous Republican administrations’ attacks on government, only this time on overdrive. For political convenience, they have dismissed the findings and opinions of their staffs on such issues as climate change, which Trump continues to deny; Russian interference in the 2016 election (which Trump also continues to deny); and the most useful ways to enhance border security, which do NOT include a coast-to-coast wall.
A January 14 Washington Post article hit it on the head: “The partial shutdown is advancing another long-standing priority [of Trump and hard-line conservatives]: constraining the government.” Especially for Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Actng Budget Director Russell T. Vought, as well as right-wing members of Congress, the border wall is a sideshow; the real goal of the shutdown is to permanently shrink and emasculate government so that it can’t perform the functions that conservatives find inconvenient – such as regulating industry, preserving the environment, enforcing civil-rights laws and protecting consumers.
The Post quoted veteran anti-government agitator Grover Norquist: “There’s a moment when people say, ‘Did you notice what percentage of this agency was viewed as nonessential?’" Exactly right. If a large swath of the government is considered “nonessential,” why not lop it off permanently?
Here’s one true tale of “nonessential” government employees. We all remember September 11, 2001. What some people forget is that many thousands of so-called “nonessential” employees across numerous agencies were involved in the response to the terrorist attack, from headquarters staff at the Pentagon to disaster-response personnel at the Federal Management Emergency Administration. The writer of this article – who was furloughed as nonessential during the 16-day shutdown of 2013 – spent the night of September 11-12, 2001 staffing the Department of Transportation’s crisis management center, and for months after that helped to disseminate public information on DOT’s response to the crisis. It wasn’t pulling people from burning buildings but the leadership of the department considered the work pretty “essential.” What if a terrorist attack occurred deep into a shutdown – with much of the government missing and those on duty under the stress of more than a month of missing paychecks? Like this past January? Use your imagination.
But for the ideologues who value corporate profit above all else, the well-being of the public is small potatoes, and the unpaid federal workers are mere roadkill on the superhighway to a lean and mean government. They see the civil servants who work for Americans every day as minions of the “deep state” who have burrowed into the bureaucracy to serve as a bulwark against a Republican president looking to rein in spending and regulation. I remember how highly civil servants were valued in 2001, and remember just as clearly how thoroughly their esteem among conservatives had faded by the 2013 shutdown.
Even though federal workers are getting paid again, the permanent damage will include the continuing decline of federal employment as an attractive career option. Who would want to work for an employer who demeans the workforce and that can refuse to pay employees with no fear of sanction? (In the private sector that’s known as “wage theft” and is a prosecutable crime). Sure, someone will always apply for federal jobs – but likely not the most ambitious, the most highly motivated, the most creative applicants. For many decades top-tier job seekers have been drawn to federal jobs even though most of them pay less than their private-sector equivalents because of the benefits and job security. The shutdown of 2018-19 has thrown much of that calculation out the window.
The debate over the wall is the topic of the month, but the debate over the value of the civil service is here to stay. Federal workers, their unions and their supporters in Congress are primed to defend the importance of the federal workforce against right-wing attack. Trump, Norquist and their friends are equally determined to continue their assault. It is a battle that concerns not only the feds and the political left but all Americans who have received a Social Security check, boarded an airplane, visited a national park, eaten food or taken medicine. It is a battle we will have to continue fighting.