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Yes, Federal Workers Are Essential | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Yes, Federal Workers Are Essential


A National Park Service employee posts a sign closing access to the Lincoln Memorial following the government shutdown. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

House Speaker John Boehner says of his government shutdown: “This isn’t some damn game.”

He is right.

When the federal government shuts down, as it has because of Boehner’s decision to play politics with the traditionally perfunctory continuing resolution process, the people that Americans trust to serve the common good and the national interest are sidelined.

Yes, of course, politicians pick on federal employees in general and public workers in particular. But even the most over-the-top members of Congress recognize that a civil society is made possible by dedicated public servants who manage our parks, maintain our highways, process claims for pensions, keep job-training programs up and running, investigate civil rights violations and do their best to protect a fragile environment.

Government workers form the human infrastructure that underpins a great deal of what is good and necessary in the American experiment. We the people care for one another, we take on great challenges, we achieve great things, and we do this by forming a more perfect union and asking some of our fellow citizens to do perform the tasks that are necessary to its maintenance.

Federal workers are essential.

Those workers take on responsibilities that are required by law, in positions established by the Congress, in fields that have been determined to be essential to the maintaining of the American enterprise. Yet, they are now deemed “nonessential”—sent to the sidelines so that John Boehner can play what he certainly seems to be treating as a game.

“People aren’t having a heart attack and don’t need their wounds dressed, but it doesn’t change the fact that what we do over the long term makes an absolute difference to the quality of life in this country,” Carolyn Federoff, an attorney with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Boston, explained after she was furloughed. “I never doubt that.”

She ought not doubt that.

And she might be intrigued to learn that, while they may not say it in so many words, members of Congress agree. Even the members who are perpetuating the shutdown.

On Saturday, the US House voted 407-0 to assure that federal workers will receive back pay when the shutdown is finished.

This was an admission, from even the most Tea Partisan of Republicans, that federal employees cannot be disregarded. They are needed.

Unfortunately, while federal workers are needed, they are not working.

And this is absurd—not just for workers but for all of us.

Roughly 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed as part of the government shutdown engineered by Texas Senator Ted Cruz and House Republicans to make a point about the Affordable Care act. That’s unsettling for those who are employed by the federal government. National Treasury Employees Union president Colleen Kelley says Federal workers are “unsure when they might be able to return to their federal offices, unsure whether or not they will be able to make their next rent or mortgage payment and frustrated and scared about their future.”

But this is about more than just federal employees.

The communities and the states where federal workers live are hurting, too. The economic uncertainty—and the potential damage to local economies—is real. And potentially devastating.

That’s why it was so right—and so important—for Congress to vote to assure that federal employees will be paid retroactively when the current crisis is resolved.

America cannot afford to lose the value added by public employees.

It is not just the work they do on behalf of the public interest and the great mass of Americans. These workers play a vital role in maintaining the economic viability of communities from Maine to California.

According to a Goldman Sachs study, every day of the shutdown robs the US economy of $400 million in economic activity—because of lost pay. The study estimates that economic growth would slow measurably—perhaps by 0.2 percents points—after just one week of a shutdown.

And the damage is most severe in areas of high government employment.

That explains why Democratic and Republican House members from Virginia and Maryland—centers of federal employment—sponsored a measure to guarantee that furloughed workers will receive their lost pay retroactively.

Maryland Democrats Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski joined Virginia Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to co-sponsor the back-pay legislation, along with House Republicans such as Virginian Frank Wolf.

“Hardworking federal employees did not cause our fiscal crises, nor did they contribute to the legislative gridlock,” says Cardin. “It is our responsibility to assure these public servants, mostly middle class and struggling to get by like so many other Americans, will be made whole again when it finally ends.”

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Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, sums things up when he says, “A shutdown isn’t fun and games; it’s detrimental to our economy and the security of middle class families.”

Pocan’s point is well taken.

It ought to be made more often.

Recognizing and defending the work that federal employees do is essential.

Recognizing the contribution they make to their communities and to the whole of the country is essential.

“Federal workers in Vermont and around the country should not have to pay the price for the House Republicans’ refusal to keep the government open,” says Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “These dedicated workers have families to feed and bills to pay and we must make it clear that when this is over they are going to get paid.”

The shutdown is, as President Obama says, a “farce.”

But this farce is harming the people who work for us—federal employees—and it is harming us.

Federal workers have been locked out.

They want to work.

And we need them working.

John Nichols explains how our broken electoral politics led to the shutdown.

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