As hundreds of thousands of furloughed federal workers returned to their jobs Monday, they and the rest of the United States proceeded with caution, fearful that another shutdown could cause disruption by the middle of February. This is no way to run a country.
If nothing else, the 35-day shutdown — the longest ever — showed anyone who was paying attention that our government plays a vital role in our lives.
Americans love to talk disparagingly about the “government” and its red tape and imperfections. But going without the usual services of just “nonessential” parts of that government made it clear that it performs lots of useful services, many of which are more “essential” to our 21st-century existence than we like to admit.
We want to get the government off our backs, we say. But we want that government to have our backs.
The effects of the shutdown are too numerous to list here, and in some cases — such as the suspension of scientific research projects — it may be a while before we know them.
Some were obvious, such as the disruptions at busy airports when unpaid TSA workers and air traffic controllers called in sick. Then there were the unpaid IRS workers who started staying home just as income tax season was revving up. Unprotected national parks were trashed. Farmers and organizations that depend upon federal grants were disrupted. Federal agencies that protect us from polluted water and contaminated food, consumer fraud, cyber-attacks and other threats were slowed.
The shutdown demonstrated how important hundreds of thousands of dedicated federal employees are to our daily lives, many of whom were forced to miss work and a month’s worth of pay, or work without pay.
The repercussions on these workers and their families became obvious as some showed up at food banks and filed for unemployment. Many were spending a lot less than usual, slowing the economy. Because the threat of a new shutdown looms, these employees may not resume spending normally when their back pay arrives. And some government contract employees won’t get back pay.
The senseless shutdown happened because President Donald Trump wanted billions of dollars for a border wall that he insists is essential even though there is ample evidence that it isn’t the most effective way to tighten the border.
And while Trump crippled a third of the government over a symbolic wall, the shutdown posed a genuine threat to safety and security where it counts. The Coast Guard, essential to patrolling borders and fighting drug trafficking, worked without pay. TSA officials at airports were overburdened. Homeland Security’s E-Verify system that tells employers who’s eligible to work in the U.S. was closed. The list goes on.
Trump is threatening to shut things down again if he doesn’t get his way. Federal employees can’t resume normal lives for fear they might again become bargaining chips in his politically motivated power play.
That’s not fair for the federal workers. It’s not right for the country, which obviously needs a fully functioning government.
If this longest of shutdowns accomplishes anything, it should be to make the point that a shutdown should never be used as leverage on any legislation. Far too much is at stake to play political games with people’s lives and the nation’s safety.