On Dec. 22, 2018, parts of the federal government shut down after Congress and President Donald Trump could not agree on a budget for a wall at the southern border. On Jan. 12, 2019, it became the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States. While this editorial board is concerned about a range of issues relating to the shutdown, we have grave misgivings about the present situation at press time as it affects the livelihoods of the roughly 800,000 federal employees who are furloughed or working without pay.
The federal government has failed to pass appropriations bills or continuing resolutions three times in the last 23 years. Between 1996 and 2013, the government remained in continuous operation. Then in Oct. 2013, House Republicans, encouraged by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), refused to pass any spending bills that would fund the Affordable Care Act. The government was closed for 16 days. In Jan. 2018, the federal government shut its doors for three days when a Republican-controlled Senate refused to include funding for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in their proposed budget. The present closure is the direct result of Trump’s refusal to sign any bill that does not include over $5 billion in funding to construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, a proposal that has widely been criticized as expensive and ineffective.
All three cases have originated in Republicans’ attempts to block important progressive policies. This editorial board strongly condemns the practice of holding the government hostage, as it imposes significant hardship on the lives of many federal employees. Some of these workers are already living paycheck-to-paycheck, and this indefinite period of unemployment is a storm that our country cannot ask them to weather for partisan squabbles. The New York Times has reported that TSA agents working at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport are being forced to choose between paying utility bills and buying groceries, and many are relying on food banks to feed themselves and their families. This example is particularly egregious considering that TSA agents have been designated as essential federal employees, and are continuing to work during the shutdown without pay.
Historically, both essential and nonessential employees have received back pay, but Congress must act in the affirmative to make this happen. As such, there is no guarantee that they will ever be compensated for this labor, making the practice of requiring certain federal employees to work during the shutdown essentially a form of involuntary servitude. However, this editorial board commends Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) for her introduction of bills that would guarantee federal workers and federal contractors with back pay, and we urge both chambers of Congress to pass these proposals.
The shutdown will have lasting effects on the ability of the federal government to function, as the threat of having to face such difficulties will dissuade talented workers from accepting federal employment.
This editorial board believes that the attitude and actions of the current executive regarding this shutdown are unconscionable. Shutting down the government is not an acceptable tool to achieve one’s political ends, as it has significant impacts on people’s lives. The insistence by Trump on funding for a border wall is the direct cause, and the “bothsidesism” displayed by much of the media when discussing the shutdown is dangerous and wrong.
The attitude of this administration has added insult to injury. The Office of Personnel Management has posted several documents on Twitter, suggesting, among other things, that furloughed federal employees do odd jobs for their landlords in exchange for a rent reduction. The implication that those denied the ability to perform their jobs should seek out temporary, unstable employment to make ends meet is condescending and does not help an already fraught situation.
Going forward, we urge all concerned members of Congress not to pass any legislation that would fund the federal government at the cost of giving Trump money for a border wall. Conceding to these demands legitimizes shutting down the government as a political tool and demonstrates its effectiveness, which will only encourage this behavior in the future. In taking this position, we cite the voices of federal workers, the majority of whom oppose the wall according to a poll released by the Government Business Council and GovExec.com on Jan. 15.
We also urge individuals who are not members of Congress to help federal workers in their communities however they can. We commend all businesses and organizations who are helping to better the lives of federal workers during this furlough. Creditors and landlords should view late payments leniently and afford furloughed federal workers the benefit of time. All should donate to food banks which feed federal employees and their families. Call your congresspeople and vocalize your opposition to Trump’s border wall. And importantly, know that your vote matters, and make sure that those who have held the government and its workers hostage will not be rewarded with your support in the next election.