The government shutdown is now in its second week with no end in sight. News media coverage focuses on the back and forth between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House John Boehner. While the bickering goes on between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, another struggle must be going on in hundreds of thousands of homes across the nation. That is the struggle of the families of federal civil servants who wonder when their next pay check will come. That’s because an estimated 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed.
It is true that the House has passed a bill providing retroactive back pay for federal employees and the president has agreed to sign the bill, but even if the Senate passes it those paychecks don’t arrive until after Congress has passed full funding for the federal government. That means families of civil servants in the meantime must meet basic needs without pay. For the many federal employees who lack a financial cushion, that could be devastating.
It is easy to ignore these civil servants in the news coverage of the government shutdown. But they are families much like anyone else’s. They rely on a paycheck to take care of the mortgage or rent, food, clothing, school supplies, and so many other necessities. They want to work. It is not their fault Congress failed to pass a budget on time.
I spent five years as a federal government employee and understood firsthand the frustration of relying on Congress for a salary increase or even just a paycheck on time. One year the agency I worked for made plans for a possible government shutdown. Many of us were designated as non-essential employees who would be furloughed if there was no budget. Being labeled “non-essential” hardly raises morale. However, even those who were deemed essential still faced the prospect of having to go to work without pay.
This is no way for any employer to handle its employees, much less the federal government. In addition to the tens of millions of Americans who are affected by the absence of civil servants to assist them with tax issues, FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgages, or federal disability claims, federal civil servants themselves deserve better than to be treated as political footballs.
House Republicans, who precipitated the current crisis by seeking to force the Obama administration and Senate Democrats to compromise on implementation of Obamacare, should approve a clean resolution and then carry on their anti-Obamacare campaign outside the annual budget process. They are not really harming the president; he gets paid during the shutdown, as do they. Rather, the harm hits many others who are the innocent victims of this political tactic. And their inability to work means significant impacts on citizens who are assisted by them. These include, for example, benefits for veterans, funding for the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program that provides food for nine million people, and handling of business loans by the Small Business Administration.
There is a solution to this problem. Congress should adopt a law that if Sept. 30 arrives without an agreed-upon budget, the previous budget automatically remains in force until a new one is passed. The default position, then, is the federal government keeps running rather than the current policy of automatic shutdown. Government agencies remain open, government services are continued, and civil servants don’t have to worry about the next paycheck.
That would end the brinkmanship that characterizes today’s politics. Those who enjoy playing politics with federal government services and the people who provide them would be disappointed. But most of us would be glad to say “good riddance” to that approach because we know it is shameful for the most powerful nation in the world to conduct its business in this manner.
Unless Congress takes this more reasonable approach to budgeting, both sides need to act now to pass a clean resolution that merely maintains the current spending levels for the time being. Then, members of Congress need to get to work at the hard task of balancing the federal budget rather than playing chicken with each other at our expense.
Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.