Why is the main harm of a long shutdown the pay of the workers and not the actual work?

· January 14, 2019  
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The political and media elites are border deniers. They are also debt deniers. This partial government shutdown has finally forced a national dialogue over the most ignored national security problem of this generation at our border. But oddly, the fact that so many agencies and departments have shut down for three weeks and nobody cares has not spawned a national discussion over the purpose of having some of these jobs, other than to pay the employees.

On Friday, with almost no debate, House Democrats brought a bill to the floor, S. 24, that would permanently guarantee automatic back pay for federal employees, even the ones that were furloughed, in the event of a shutdown. Traditionally, Congress has always voted to pay back federal workers after a particular shutdown, given the radioactive nature of the politics behind it. But this bill is different. If it were to become law, it would essentially take all federal employees’ salaries, which are currently discretionary and subject to the appropriations process, and make them mandatory spending. Thus, irrespective of whether Congress passes appropriations bills, all federal employees – whether essential or not – would be guaranteed pay for not working during an appropriation lapse.

The amazing thing is that only seven Republicans had the courage to fight through the demagoguery and vote against this bill.

The bill was poorly crafted, even from a leftist perspective, because if the goal is to pre-emptively end government shutdowns, then why didn’t the bill also mandate that these same workers go to work? If you want to end the concept of government shutdowns, then just end them. This bill merely permanently guarantees pay and treats government salaries like Social Security and Medicare without even ending the furloughs when Congress can’t reach an agreement on spending bills. As Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., one of the seven brave conservatives who voted against the bill, told me today, by guaranteeing “retroactive pay for every possible future shutdown,” it will only make it “easier for politicians to cause future shutdowns,” which is the exact opposite of what proponents of this bill are touting.

Sadly, the political class is learning the exact opposite lesson they should from this stealth shutdown. Obviously, there are some important agencies, such as ICE, Border Patrol, and the Coast Guard, that are subject to this lapse in appropriations and are seeing their pay delayed. We should always ensure that the essential workers are paid. But because they are essential, they are still working. What about the 95.4 percent of HUD employees, 86 percent of Commerce, 83.3 percent of Treasury, 66.5 percent of Agriculture, and 76 percent of Interior, employees who are not working because they are deemed unessential? Education and Labor are already funded this time, but if they were subject to the shutdown, 95 percent and 81 percent of their respective employees would be deemed nonessential.

One can make a case that some nonessential workers are necessary in the long run and are just not indispensable at the moment. That is certainly the case at Justice and Homeland Security, where roughly 85 percent of employees are deemed essential, so naturally you will need a certain number of nonessential, yet necessary, employees to support their work. But if such a high percentage of a department is deemed nonessential, shouldn’t we have a discussion on whether those positions should exist or whether states, which actually have to balance their budgets, should take up the slack?

For some non-security-related agencies, the only collateral damage of this border fight is that the workers aren’t getting paid. But if that is the only substantial problem, why are we not having a debate over the purpose of these jobs to begin with? We don’t have government for the purpose of creating employment. Regardless of one’s ideology, federal agencies and programs should only exist if they are deemed indispensable to the public good.

Sure, the media is trying to conjure up problems resulting from the shutdown, but nobody could honestly suggest that we are seeing a crisis from the closure of the departments and agencies where the majority of the employees are nonessential, such as at HUD. We have thousands of local governments and 50 states governments for a reason, and housing is clearly a local function.

Which brings us to the 800-poound gorilla in the room – the debt. Any responsible American, even one who is not facing a debt crisis, would not pay for so many products and services that are so unessential that if they were terminated for a while, they wouldn’t feel it. Now consider someone who does face a debt crisis. The finances of an individual family who is in the same debt crisis as the federal government would look like this:

  • The family earns $100,000 per year but incurs $130,000 in annual expenses.
  • The cumulative debt of the family is greater than all its assets and is set to explode in a few years.
  • The family already throws away a lot of money every year paying interest to credit cards, but in a decade, $18,000 every year will be going towards that interest.

Any normal American family in this predicament would be forced to make painful long-term cuts and find a new path in life. Yet our government won’t have a discussion over the debt even now that it has become evident that we can go so long without many government positions.

Unfortunately, we already have two-thirds of federal spending deemed off limits and not subject the annual budget process. This is why it was so irresponsible for Congress to try to take the entire federal payroll out of the budget process and turn it into de facto mandatory spending. We will never have a discussion on the need for any part of the federal budget if this bill becomes law.

For that matter, Congress is not even doing anything about the $141 billion in annual “improper payments.” We are having a fight over $5.7 billion in funding for the most important job of the federal government, while Congress refuses to deal with pure waste and fraud that is 25 times that cost every year.

In the coming weeks, it’s incumbent upon people of all political persuasions to ask the following question: If we are facing such a deep debt crisis, can we still afford to reflexively keep every federal office currently in existence simply because it offers a paycheck?


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Author: Daniel Horowitz

Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.