Shutdown could boost perception of federal employees

Joe Davidson

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 8 2013 10:32 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, Marcelo del Canto, a budget analyst for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockville, Md., poses for a photo at the Potomac Community Neighborhood Park in Rockville, Md.

Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — In a weird way, this stupid government shutdown could improve the perception of federal employees.

Also strange: The Republican-led House, which has often targeted the federal payroll, has unanimously approved a bill that would allow federal workers, too often unjustly criticized as overpaid do-nothings, to get paid for doing nothing.

While nothing about this shutdown makes sense, it is good that the public is getting a better appreciation for the federal workforce. And if Congress is going to pay federal workers, it should let them go back to work.

Shut down the shutdown.

The longer it goes, the more taxpayers will miss the services government and its workers provide. In recent days, a few things have shown how much the government, and therefore its employees, mean to people:

_ A Capitol Police officer was injured trying to protect the legislative grounds against a potential attack. An apparently mentally disturbed woman wildly drove her car to Capitol Hill after crashing a barricade at the White House and injuring a uniformed Secret Service officer. Members of the House gave Capitol Police a standing ovation. (As heroic as some officers were, that should not detract from a vigorous and thorough investigation into the fatal shooting by police of the woman while she was in the car with her infant daughter.)

_ Rep. Randy Neugebauer's ridiculous outburst against a National Park Service employee who was merely following orders, which might be overly restrictive, to close monuments. She was defended by another federal employee who confronted the congressman, a Republican from Texas.

_ The vote to pay furloughed employees.

"I was surprised that we got a unanimous vote," said Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., a co-sponsor of the legislation. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., who has a long history of supporting federal employees, also was a co-sponsor.

Wolf "was really instrumental" in securing votes from his caucus, according to Moran. Some Republicans, Moran said, were skeptical about paying people who are not working, but eventually they agreed. "I'd love to think this portends something for the future," he said. "I'm not sure. I'm not that optimistic."

But if only for the moment, the news of 407 members of the House — including Neugebauer — agreeing to pay federal employees on furlough is worth savoring. It shows respect for workers who want to work but cannot, through no fault of their own. By the way, the 24 members who did not vote were a bipartisan group: 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats. The bill is expected to pass the Senate.

The vote gives Republicans "some cover for some of the insidious things they've passed," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., — evidence that they are "not rabidly anti-government."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said, "There's a wide recognition that it's not the individual federal employee's fault. Each of our offices employs federal workers."

Republicans think "too many federal workers earn too much money," he added, "but we're not spiteful enough to take that out on some worker at the Interior Department."

If the bill becomes law, it weakens the argument for keeping the government closed.

"Our argument will be, we're paying these folks, they need to be able to work and earn their pay," Moran said. "I think it is a compelling argument."

But Republicans aren't buying the argument that federal employees should get back to work through passage of a "clean CR." They have insisted on junking up a temporary government funding measure, called a continuing resolution, with attacks on the Affordable Care Act. Although the have tried and failed many times to derail the health-care law, House Republicans decided to make another attempt by tying implementation of the law to the funding measure, effectively derailing the government.

Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says that there are not enough votes to pass a clean CR, but various independent tallies, including one by The Washington Post, indicate he is wrong. Allow the vote, and let the tally show who is right. If Boehner is, he has nothing to lose.

The public apparently understands there is no good reason not to vote on a clean bill and allow it to rise or fall on its own merits. A new Washington Post/ABC poll indicates that 70 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the way Republicans are handling the budget situation. Although neither the congressional Democrats nor President Obama fare well in the poll, they look good by comparison, and their numbers are moving, albeit slightly, toward greater public approval.

Meanwhile, as GOP fortunes sink, the shutdown resulting from their budget strategy is boosting compassion for federal employees.

"For your rank-and-file federal worker, there is a lot of sympathy for them getting caught up in the pigsty that is Washington, D.C.," Chaffetz said. "Everybody is very sympathetic to that."

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