By Nadav Ziv
There is something fundamentally wrong with a political system in which hundreds of thousands of federal employees can suffer the collateral damage of political polarization.
Understanding and addressing the structural causes of the growing acrimony between Democrats and Republicans is a long-term, herculean task. But we can mitigate the worst consequences of a divided government by removing Congress’ and the President’s ability to recklessly engage in brinkmanship that hurts our nation and the people for which that nation claims to stand.
Before we consider whether there are situations where the costs associated with a government shutdown could be justified, it’s important we clarify the nature and magnitude of at least some of those costs. The current shutdown is already the longest in history, and 800,000 workers employed in nine of the 15 cabinet departments whose funding is in limbo have been furloughed. Of those 800,000 workers, 420,000 deemed essential have been forced to work without pay — indefinitely.
There are three main impacts the shutdown has on workers: lost wages, job-related anxiety and uncertainty, and being obligated to render services without due compensation.
The American Federation of Government Employees is the largest federal government union and notes that their members “take home an average of $500 each week.” That translates to only a $26,000 yearly salary and means that many federal workers are particularly susceptible to disruptions to income. Even if essential workers are later paid back in full, this only promises relief after the fact and does little to quell current financial strains.
This disruption to income, however, is starkly different from unemployment. Federal workers are left in a state of limbo where they must find ways to make ends meet without a long-term plan. An indefinite shutdown robs them of the information they need to make informed choices about whether and which alternative line of work they should pursue. The resulting uncertainty is stressful at its best, cruel and unusual at its worst.
Then there is the matter of those workers deemed essential. This categorization implies the work they perform is priceless. But being unpaid doesn’t inspire a strong sense of worth. These essential employees have limited time to pursue other jobs to generate supplemental income.
Lawsuits have already been filed contesting the legality of mandatory, unpaid work under the Fair Labor Standards Act. And while the Anti-Deficiency Act “bars federal officials from paying out money if Congress hasn’t appropriated it,” a federal judge ruled after a similar lawsuit over the 2013 shutdown that the government still violated the FLSA and ordered them to pay workers “double the amount owed them.” Twenty-five thousand of those workers have still not received their additional compensation. Even if current lawsuits attain a similar verdict after lengthy legal wrangling, it may be years before workers receive damages.
Beyond the tangible impact on federal workers, the shutdown has greater implications for the long-term appeal of civil service occupations. If we want working for the government to be an attractive career option, then we should probably eliminate shutdowns that make the security of those jobs contingent on the manipulations of politicians, like members of Congress and the President, who continue to get paid as they impose financial burdens on the people they oversee.
In sum, the costs of the government shutdown represent a violation of the fundamental premise that human lives are not means to an end but rather inviolable and deserving of dignity and respect. Is there a casus belli important enough to justify the emotional pain inflicted on workers, the long-term impacts on the appeal of public service, the declining trust in government and the potential disruption to critical government services?
Before we extrapolate more broadly, let’s consider the current shutdown. Even if we take President Trump at his absolute best and grant the existence of an immediate border security threat (a premise which I would strongly contest), then there is still no good reason why that security must take the form of a wall rather than more modern, technologically rooted approaches such as cameras, fixed towers and underground sensors. Trump’s insistence on wall funding, therefore, is a dereliction of duty as the chief executive of all Americans and is instead centered around the fulfillment of a campaign promise to particular supporters. As such, it is morally bankrupt and cannot be justified.
We can, however, ostensibly imagine a situation in which the insistence was not on a specific policy (like a wall) but rather on a broader goal (like border security) where there is more latitude to address ethical concerns. Or perhaps a shutdown could be used as a form of protest to draw attention to heinous government actions (think of the separation of migrant children from their parents or the internment of the American-Japanese population during World War II). Surely then, we would think, it would be justified for a political party or the executive to refuse to fund the government until action was taken to rectify the injustice.
This view may be well intentioned, but misguided. A government shutdown only really occurs under divided government, which means this question doesn’t even apply if one party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress.
And when government is as divided as it is currently, then each political party has enormous capacity to thwart the agenda of the other party. If one party considers an opposition policy proposal abhorrent and controls at least one of the chambers of Congress or the Presidency, they can prevent it from being implemented by voting it down or vetoing it. Assuming something got past this initial bottleneck, then it is still unlikely that the moment of crisis will magically align with the date to extend government funding. Even if it did, there are alternative ways of exerting political pressure — through social media for example — that don’t involve inflicting pain on hundreds of thousands of federal workers.
Shutdowns are a bullying tactic, devoid of legitimacy and usefulness. They hurt federal workers, diminish the appeal of public sector jobs and are detrimental to our nation as a whole. Removing Congress’ and the President’s ability to not pay workers and disrupt the normal functions of government is one of the first steps we can take in treating the worst symptoms of political polarization.
Contact Nadav Ziv at nadavziv ‘at’ stanford.edu.