Government shutdowns used to irritate me. I was in the Carter administration, which suffered one of the very first shutdowns after contentious arguments over how Medicaid dollars could be applied to reproductive issues brought the government to a halt for 12 days.
Fortunately, my department, transportation, was not one of those that incurred major disruption; but all federal managers were made anxious by this new threat to stable government. It was a nuisance.
Four decades and nearly two dozen shutdowns later, I’ve ceased to find them annoying, and begun to find them outrageous and unpatriotic.
A government shutdown throws federal agencies into chaos. Chaos in a small business context is not easily fixed; in agencies with tens of thousands of civil servants serving a nation of 325 million, it’s a disaster. As a young assistant secretary, I worked 70 hours a week and brought two hours of reading home at night. Then I might get a middle-of-the night call from a Coast Guard captain at sea needing boarding permission. DOT managers were required by law to oversee not only the U.S. coastal waters, but our airports, railroads, highways, transit systems, ports and hazardous cargo. For me, it was an invaluable window into the profoundly difficult and crucial work that accurately describes the lives of most civil servants.
But was this job “essential?”
Not according to the Trump administration. Not only was my successor sent home, but the entire Department of Transportation was shuttered. The first “oops” came at airports, when a panicked White House ordered TSA screeners back to work without pay, the term for that being “indentured servitude.” The Trump administration’s failure to carry out the fundamental responsibilities of a government they hate would earn a court martial in the military. Their willful ignorance of the federal system is a danger to the nation.
So is the lack of empathy for the federal professionals who on average are the most capable and dedicated employees I have encountered in a 50-year career in business and politics. They were treated as collateral damage. We should be concerned that our top civil servants will abandon ship for higher paying jobs in the private sector; for it takes decades to replace our scientists, doctors, computer engineers, energy experts, lawyers, diplomats and spies. We should be ashamed that the “contracted” workforce — from the janitors and cooks to the people who design airports and weapons systems — are not receiving back pay. For the highly paid, it is an insult and inconvenience; for minimum wage workers, a catastrophe.
The clique of political nihilists in charge today — presidential advisor Steven Miller, for example — are essentially political terrorists. They have weaponized the threat of shutdowns like body vests set to explode if they don’t get their way. No terrorist menace in their wildest imaginings could succeed in slamming shut most of the domestic services of the U.S. Government for 35 days. What joy America’s enemies must have felt as they watched in disbelief as we did it to ourselves. How could our democracy have come to this?
The decline of civics education and the rise of hate radio and its daily gospels on the evils of wasteful Washington have caused too many citizens to devalue government.
Don’t tell that to our farmers who recently suffered a bad blow when the Agriculture Department sat dormant just as planting season arrived this year. With the price of soybeans in the tank, 200,000 family farmers urgently needed the trade adjustment payments and federal loans that didn’t come.
Don’t tell travelers who needed visas and passports for business trips or vacation. Which of us were happy when the food and drug inspection went out of business with impacts yet unknown?
How about the families on tight budgets looking for the IRS tax refund? It will be a while.
The federal government impacts every sector of American life, mostly for the good, and its ability to function depends on the support of an informed electorate. I salute the growing bipartisan movement in the new Congress to pass legislation outlawing shutdowns once and for all. Let’s encourage our own delegations to get behind a virtuous and needed reform.
We have a right as citizens to government services every day.