WASHINGTON — In some ways, Congress is akin to a corporation's board of directors.
Directors generally are distinguished individuals who set the tone for the organization, providing guidance, vision and leadership. Fortunately, federal employees don't follow the leadership example set by their board, this "Congress of chronic chaos," as Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., described the legislative body late Saturday night.
If they did, they'd be fired for dereliction of duty.
Shortly after midnight Sunday, the majority House Republicans voted for legislation that could lead to a shutdown of large portions of the government. Under the guise of compromise, they approved a temporary funding bill, but included a poison pill — a one-year delay in implementation of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature achievement. The "compromise" was not defunding it, as they had previously voted to do.
"Republicans in the Congress failed the American people," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., "all because of their obsession" with the health-care law and in "their blind pursuit of ideology."
Republicans want to delay implementation of the law long enough for them to win the Senate. If they do so next year, and keep the House, they can repeal Obamacare, which has been their main objective since it passed before Obama was reelected. But they know the delay won't pass the Democratic-controlled Senate on Monday and even if it did, Obama has promised a veto.
"The House has again passed a plan that reflects the American people's desire to keep the government running and stop the president's health-care law," said House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. "It's up to the Senate to pass this bill without delay to stop a government shutdown."
That's not going to happen.
The House refused to approve a funding bill without the delaying amendment, as the Senate has done. This stalemate means there is a very good chance there won't be money to keep the government fully operational, leaving many services to close Tuesday and sending hundreds of thousands of federal employees home without pay.
"I can't believe there's one of us, Mr. Speaker, that would serve on a board of directors and treat a large portion of our employees with such disrespect, with such lack of consideration, with such contempt at times, as we treat our civilian employees," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said during the debate.
The federal workforce takes seriously its mission to serve the nation. Now it seems likely some lawmakers will prevent many from working on that mission.
"This represents a slap in the face to the entire country," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., blaming a "tea party run amok" shortly before the vote. "They are playing games with people's lives, federal employees and people around the country who depend on the services they provide."
The people won't be served, past experience indicates, in a wide range of ways if employees are furloughed. Museums and national parks will close. Disease surveillance could stop. Grants and loans to students could be delayed. Food-safety oversight will suffer. The National Institutes of Health won't admit new patients. Calls to IRS service centers would go unanswered. Veterans' education and rehabilitation benefits would not be processed.
"What are we doing this for?" asked an exasperated Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. "It doesn't make sense." Congress, he added, "is dis-serving the American public."
From a table compiled by my colleagues on the impact of a shutdown, based on agency projections and plans from 2011, here are some examples of the number of workers who could be forced not to serve:
Commerce: Two-thirds of 46,000 employees would be furloughed.
Education: A total of 4,013 of 4,225 employees would not continue working.
Environmental Protection Agency: "Only a core group" of workers would remain at work.
Health and Human Services: In all, 40,512 staff members would not work; 37,686 would.
Homeland Security: Sixteen percent of the agency's 230,000 employees would not work
Interior: Altogether, 58,000 of 72,562 employees face furloughs
Justice: A total of 17,742 employees out of 114,486 employees would not work
Treasury: Eighty-eight percent of the 101,000 employees would be furloughed, including nearly 90 percent of the IRS workforce.
Veterans Affairs: About 5 percent of 332,000 staffers would not keep working.
While the vote to delay the Affordable Care Act was almost strictly along party lines, the House voted unanimously to provide military pay during a shutdown.
"I believe that all federal employees should be paid," said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va. "Federal employees and their families should not be punished because the administration and Congress cannot agree."
Another Virginia Republican, Rob Wittman, agreed, saying "these hardworking patriots serve our nation on a daily basis. . . . They deserve the best."Comment on this story
Then both Republicans joined the others in voting for the legislation that would effectively put many of those hardworking patriots out of work.
"Make no mistake: House Republicans voted this evening to shut down the government, and they did it intentionally," said Rep. Donna F. Edwards, D-Md. "For the federal workers and civilian contractors in my district, many who work alongside our military personnel, this is an insult to their hard work and commitment to our country."