Stop the shutdown: Workers deserve better

January 4, 2019

One result of the current nationwide shutdown of the federal government — we hope — will be a new appreciation of the important work federal workers do across the country.

They should not become political footballs in a government that seems unable to accomplish basic tasks. Republican or Democrat, it is past time that Congress pass spending bills and someday, even an entire budget, that the president can sign in a timely fashion. According to Pew Research Center, Congress has passed its required spending measures on time only four times since the current system was adopted in the 1970s — the last time came in 1997.

Obviously, we live in unusual times, with President Donald Trump unable to negotiate rationally and in good faith. Even amid this tumult, leaders on the Senate and House side need to begin planning for the day when lawmakers return to passing spending bills with established procedures, ensuring that the government does not lack money just because someone decides to throw a hissy fit.

Workers deserve to be paid, on time, without having to worry about where the money will come from for groceries, utilities or a mortgage, especially not during the holidays.

Tips from the Trump administration on what to do to make dollars stretch included advice from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management — including a letter employees could send to landlords offering “the possibility of trading my services to perform maintenance (e.g. painting, carpentry work) in exchange for partial rent payments.” This is similar to advice offered in past shutdowns, but it was dumb then and remains so today. Meanwhile, the federal employees union is suing for its pay.

The partial shutdown impacts some tens of thousands of federal workers across the country, including in New Mexico, who are furloughed without pay at home. Others are working, doing their job, all without pay because their jobs are considered essential. The Washington Post reports some 800,000 employees are affected. (One possible bright spot, at least for the state of New Mexico, which needs to hire workers quickly, its ranks are so depleted: Federal workers might trade current jobs for regular pay, good benefits and respect. Recruit them now; they deserve better.)

The impact on individuals, whether workers or contractors, has been devastating. Small businesses — and that will include people in New Mexico — also will be affected. Parks, museums, forests, the work of government big and small across the nation, are being damaged. Small business loans can’t be processed. Food and drug inspections are stopped. We are at standstill.

In Indian Country, where federal agencies carry out responsibilities laid out in treaties, the pain is real. On the Navajo Nation, where snow-covered roads are not being plowed because basic maintenance stopped, people are trapped in their homes, according to the New York Times.

At issue for Trump is funding for his longed-for border wall. He lacks the necessary votes to win $5 billion in taxpayer dollars for the wall — the same wall that Mexico was going to pay for — and decided to close government instead. With the shutdown in its second week, few solutions are in sight.

We have one. Put federal employees back to work. Resolve to win disputes through negotiation and persuasion rather than ultimatums that hurt individuals and society as a whole. Back down, in other words.

That has never been Trump’s style, but in a new year, why not try new strategies? He could “find” money not spent and apply it to places on the border where he believes a wall will increase security. That’s not our preferred solution — there are smarter ways to secure the border, including by investing in countries that are sending refugees — but Trump has to save face somehow.

There already is $1.6 billion offered for border security, and U.S. Sen. Doug Jones said last month that those dollars, along with billions that remain unspent, would get Trump close to the sum he is demanding. This shutdown, to be blunt, has no point.

Declare victory, Mr. President. Then restart the government, with politicians from all sides promising never, ever to use workers as a bargaining chip. Unless, of course, the first salaries to be put on hold belong to the president and every member of Congress. Since they get paid, so should everyone else.

Update hourly