As a former government employee and contractor, I’ve watched with continuing dismay at the dynamics of the latest government shutdown.
Perhaps most disturbing in watching it unfold, is the conclusion that the government has tacitly accepted the practice of hurting its employees, economy, and those who depend on its services as part of this annual ritual. While the ongoing political tug-of-war lurches towards its latest resolution, several underlying bases and assumptions need to be re-examined or this frustrating and destructive cycle will continue.
Lesson 1: At the top level, it’s time to modify the legislation that forms the legal basis of these shutdowns—the Antideficiency Act.
Enacted in 1884, its purpose was to prevent the government’s practice of spending or obligating funds in excess of amounts authorized. Various agencies were abusive, intentionally spending their budgets prematurely in order to acquire additional funding later in the year. While the goal may have had noble intentions, one of the unanticipated consequences became the practice of shutting down the government and furloughing its employees to wrest budgetary concessions from the competing party. The result is this cyclical practice that has been so harmful to the employees directly affected, to those citizens dependent on their services, and, ultimately, to the economy that the Act originally was meant to help.
This Act (or parallel legislation) needs to be modified so that government employees and the services they provide are protected by it, rather than held hostage by it. Budgetary disagreements will continue to be part of the democratic process. Suspending services and livelihoods while these battles rage on should no longer be an impetus for reaching agreements. Another way to view it is that this practice is inhumane to those affected and should be protected by the government whose purpose is to oversee the welfare of its citizens. Furloughs should be regarded as a moral issue that Congress must protect, in the same vein as allocating money and resources for hurricane relief or bailout of various industries during the last recession. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s recently-introduced legislation, aptly named the “Stop STUPIDITY (Shutdowns Transferring Unnecessary Pain and Inflicting Damage In The Coming Years) Act” is precisely the concept that Congress needs to consider. This bill would continue appropriations in the event of a budgetary lapse under the normal appropriations process. If not this bill, any other variant that would protect the federal employees and the thousands of contractors should be pursued.
Lesson 2: Slightly buried under the surface in the furlough thought process is the popular concept of a big and bloated government that is wasting hard-earned taxpayer dollars. This idea frequently emerges as campaign themes or rhetoric by politicians seeking to tap into an idea that often evokes rousing appeal from an audience that is dependent on many the very government services provided by this mega-government: e.g., Medicare, Social Security, safety inspectors, air-traffic controllers, hurricane relief, the local transportation system, and farm subsidies, among others.
“Big government,” in essence, consists of the many federal employees and contractors who provide the services. Legislation is meant to protect “essential personnel” during these shutdowns, but this latest, lengthy fiasco amply demonstrated that most of the hideously-labeled “non-essential” positions (how would that make you feel about your job?), morph towards the ”essential” category if their services aren’t provided after a few weeks. This was demonstrated by the lengths to which the President and others went to get many of these “non-essential” individuals back to work. (James Hohmann’s recent piece in The Washington Post provides added insight on this phenomenon). While it is tempting to use this “big government” catch-phrase, it comes at the expense of the federal workforce and it needs to be replaced on the campaign trail by discussions on more specific constituent-focused issues.
Lesson 3: On a personal level, these periodic shutdowns were one of the primary reasons that I retired as a government employee and switched to private contracting. I found it unacceptable to have my family’s financial well-being dependent on a yearly budgetary process involving parties who predictably find themselves in polar-opposite positions. Continued use of federal employees as political bargaining chips will continue to drain the government of some of its strongest, most-capable employees and will certainly negatively impact recruitment efforts.
Whether the debates involve funding walls; the Federal Trade commission (Carter); civil rights measures (Reagan); tax increases (George H. W. Bush); cuts to education, the environment and public health (Clinton); or the Affordable Care Act (Obama), one would hope that our elected officials are seeing that the shutdowns are basically a lose-lose proposition for both the perpetrators and the victims. I would like to think that this most recent variation of the same theme provides the necessary impetus to our representatives to pass the legislation needed to end this practice.
David L Forrester