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A petulant president shuts down government and insults working people

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

National Park Service sign to let visitors know that national parks are closed due to government shutdown. Image from Fiscal Times

The partial government shutdown continues, and 800,000 federal employees are going without pay, either furloughed and forced not to work, or deemed “essential” and forced to work without pay.

On Christmas Day, President Trump suggested that the workers supported the shutdown that he earlier said he would be “proud” to cause: “Many of those workers have said to me, communicated, stay out until you get the funding for the wall.”

This is a billionaire’s conceit. Federal employees are not wealthy. Like most Americans, many live paycheck to paycheck. The shutdown, which started on Dec. 22, stopped all paychecks just as the holiday approached. It also terminated all paid time off for workers, even for those who have scheduled leave for the holiday and will lose the paid time off if they don’t use it by the end of the year.

It is hard to imagine anything more disruptive, or more callous.

Unlike the president, Trump’s Office of Personnel Management recognizes the plight that workers face in the shutdown. It issued suggestions on how employees might negotiate with landlords and creditors over missed payments, even suggesting that they offer to do “painting or carpentry” in lieu of rent. Even if Congress eventually votes to reimburse employees for back pay, it isn’t likely to cover the fines, penalty fees, late fees, and hit to credit ratings that the shutdown will cause.

For years, conservatives have maligned federal workers as overpaid, inefficient and intrusive. Ever since President Ronald Reagan quipped that the most dangerous words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” federal workers have been scorned and mocked.

This is just plain ignorant. Federal workers are public servants — they do the public’s work. They are air traffic controllers, park rangers, border patrol officers and prison employees. They guard our coasts, they protect our air and water, they care for public lands, they administer our Social Security and Medicare.

We rely on them in big and little ways. When Republicans cut the public servants in the Internal Revenue Service, the wealthy and corporations find it easier to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. When OSHA inspectors are cut, employees are at greater risk in the work place.

When the Justice Department cuts back on anti-trust, private monopolies and fraud fleece millions of Americans. When we get stuck waiting in lines or find getting help from a federal official difficult, we should remember that it isn’t because the employees are incompetent, it’s because right-wing attacks on government and cuts in resources have rendered them less able to do their work.

Conservatives say they believe in markets, not government, but free and efficient markets depend on government to enforce laws, break up monopolies, police against fraud. Without an active and efficient government, the criminal and the grifters drive out the honest and the decent from the marketplace, and we are all worse off as a result.

Trump’s shutdown is simply the most recent of his assaults on the employees of the government that he was elected to run. He’s scorned them as part of the “swamp,” sought to freeze their pay, cut their retirements and undermine their labor organizations.

Instead of paying tribute to their service, he’s demeaned their capacity, even while cutting the resources needed to do their jobs. Not surprisingly, the non-partisan Best Places to Work report finds a decline in employee engagement and morale under Trump.

The shutdown will do real damage to many federal employees and their families. And it will do real damage to the services that we need and expect from our government. For Trump and the right, this is a sucker’s play.

They demean federal employees, shut down parts of the government, cut back resources and staffing to do needed tasks and then use the resulting inefficiency as evidence that government can’t work.


Published with permission from RPC. From Rev. Jackson's weekly commentary for The Chicago Sun-Times.

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