A little more than a week ago, President Donald Trump temporarily ended the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. The monthlong standoff between Democrats and Republicans over a $5.8 billion border wall affected the pay of an estimated 800,000 federal employees.
While Congress and the president were still paid during the shutdown, as is customary, hundreds of thousands of federal employees across the country were not. From postal workers to coast guard officers, missed paychecks have caused many once-financially stable employees to rely on savings, federal assistance and random, short-term jobs.
Trump is certainly not the only president to have presided over a lengthy government shutdown – the second-longest in American history was during Bill Clinton’s presidency, after he vetoed a requirement to balance the federal budget within seven years. Around 800,000 workers were furloughed then, too.
Shutdowns are power plays. They’re games of chicken, staring contests with high stakes and consequences for whoever blinks first. Sometimes they’re warranted. But mostly, they’re a political tit-for-tat, with both parties refusing to reach across the aisle.
Congress’ pay is written into the Constitution, and the 27th Amendment actually prevents Congress from changing its salaries between elections. But the U.S. Constitution doesn’t protect the salaries of federal workers and congressional employees in the same way – and that’s where there’s a problem. Because federal employees are paid according to the General Schedule, an official pay scale used by the government that helps determine who is deemed an essential worker (and, by extension, who has to work without pay), their salaries are used as bargaining chips for elected officials far above them in both pay and power.
And if lawmakers can’t come to an agreement on the wall and several other issues, by Feb. 15, the shutdown may begin again.
This kind of contentious pseudo-bargaining, where each party already has what it wants in mind, refuses to budge and is willing to use thousands of hardworking Americans as leverage, is damaging to our workforce and our economy.
Our government was built to encourage compromise and ensure that no one party or branch of government is able to wield inordinate control over the other, or over its constituents. It’s time for our leaders to value people over party.