Shutdown and A Taste of Armageddon

More than 50 years ago (February 1967 to be exact), NBC aired an episode of Star Trek called A Taste of Armageddon. The plot involved two planets that had been at war for almost 500 years. Rather than destroying their planets, the governments had agreed to a computer-simulated war — similar to a war game — where the victims of simulated attacks were identified and expected to report to disintegration chambers to be executed. The war was neat and tidy, and the leaders had no real reason to end it.

Readers can probably see where I am going with this. The current partial government shutdown, and the full shutdowns that preceded it are, in some respects, simulated shutdowns. They are very real for the people whose pay relies on appropriated funds, but in many other respects they are not shutdowns at all. And that is the problem.

An interesting article in The Washington Post posited that the partial shutdown is good for advocates of smaller government, because it shows that many government jobs are “nonessential” and therefore agencies can safely be reduced. That would be a sound argument if it were based on fact. The truth is that a government shutdown does not tell us anything about the effects of dramatically reducing staffing in agencies, because the shutdowns, much like the attacks in A Taste of Armageddon, are simulated.

The Justice Department and the Office of Management and budget have ruled that government can continue operating during a lapse of appropriations (the technical term for politicians not doing their jobs) if those operations are necessary to protect life, property or national security. From one perspective, that makes a lot of sense. Who would want to see government activities cease when someone could die?

And that is where the problem lies. We have entered into an era where shutdowns are becoming more common. The current partial shutdown shows no signs of ending, and people who are not directly affected by it wonder if it really means anything for the government to shut down. I could understand how someone might feel that way. That’s because the true effects of a shutdown are masked by the exceptions that keep things from blowing up. Congress and the White House protect themselves from the consequences and, in many respects, conceal those consequences from the public.

Those consequences are significant. The obvious one is that 800,000 people are not getting paid. If the federal workers who are not being paid but have been ordered to work refuse, they could be fired. Imagine a world where your employer can refuse to pay you and then fire you for not coming to work. Then there are the contractors. They may be told to not work, but are unlikely to be paid. There are other people who are harmed financially who will get zero relief.

And that is only the financial hardship for people and businesses. What about the agencies that rely on the agencies that are shut down? What happens when an agency that is working now because they have a working capital fund rather than appropriated dollars? The money may run out, then they will be shut down. What happens to the agencies that have deferred important work because they are shut down? When they return, they will have backlogs that will last for months, or even years. Deferred maintenance in National Parks, already a problem before the shutdown, will be far worse. Paperwork that has not been processed will create backlogs in many agencies. Benefits will be delayed. Decisions that have been deferred will be delayed, and will cause future decisions to be delayed. And what about security operations that have been reduced to skeleton crews? And furloughed support staff for law enforcement personnel? The list can go on and on.

The fact that we are seeing more people being brought back to work (such as Internal Revenue Service employees returning to pay tax refunds), demonstrates that there is eventually a political price to be paid for a shutdown, and politicians do not like the prospect of that.

In A Taste of Armageddon, Captain Kirk destroyed the computers and communications systems that allowed the two planets to continue their simulated war. Faced with the prospect of mutual annihilation, the governments decided peace was a better choice.

Perhaps we would be much better off if the consequence of a lapse in appropriations was a real shutdown. If we did not allow for countless exceptions, and we did not expect hundreds of thousands of employees to continue working with no pay while the President and Congress continue to be paid, we would have our own taste of Armageddon. The borders would be open. International commerce would grind to a halt. Air travel would stop. The military would go home. In fact, there would be no money to keep those buildings open. There would be no food safety inspections. No drug approvals. No one guarding the Capitol or the White House. No work at the vital National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. Nothing. And anarchy. Then, and only then, would we see the true consequences of really shutting down the government.

If the result of Congress and the White House not reaching agreement on annual appropriations before the beginning of the fiscal year was that kind of Armageddon, we would never see another shutdown. That’s because it would be followed by an even worse kind of nightmare scenario for politicians — being voted out of office in the next election.

When Back Pay is Not Good Enough

The ongoing partial government shutdown is dominating news coverage just about everywhere. With President Donald Trump making his case last night, followed by House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Schumer, we did not hear anything that would resolve the shutdown. One thing we do hear a lot is that federal workers who are working without pay or who have been sent home without pay will almost certainly get back pay once the shutdown is over. Contractors who have been sent home without pay will almost certainly not get back pay.

Is that good enough? I believe the answer is no. The Congress cannot do much about contractor pay, but it certainly can do something about pay for federal workers. There are two actions they should take as soon as possible.

  1. Guarantee back pay for federal workers. Shutdowns are the result of the breakdown in our political processes, a problem that is caused by politicians and not by federal workers. When these political failures lead to a lapse in appropriations, there should be no doubt that workers will receive back pay. Legislation to make that guarantee a matter of law, rather than the good will of Congress and the President, would be easy to draft and would probably pass easily.
  2. Eliminate the need for back pay by paying federal workers during a lapse of appropriations. Paying employees during a shutdown is considered to be a violation of the Anti Deficiency Act and Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution says “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law ….” It is certainly within the power of the Congress and the President to change the law to require that agencies continue paying employees during a lapse in appropriations. Perhaps doing so would take some of the sting out of a shutdown, weakening the political benefit and perceived leverage that one side or the other might have. If that is the case, then the primary reason for not continuing pay is that federal workers would be less effective as political pawns. That is not a particularly good reason to put the financial well-being of federal employees at risk. The fact that a long shutdown may cause agencies to lose some of their best talent and exacerbate recruiting problems many agencies already experience is another reason why this issue needs to be resolved for good.

Why is back pay not enough? The answer is simple. Many people do not have the money to pay their bills when their pay stops. Should everyone have savings for emergencies? Absolutely. Can everyone afford to save money to create that buffer? No. A 2016 study by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 3/4 of people in households earning less than $50,000 per year, and 2/3 of those making $50,000 – $100,000, would have difficulty coming up with $1,000 to cover an emergency expense.

If you cannot come up with $1,000, imagine what happens when your paycheck stops. Missing even one paycheck could mean a family cannot pay the rent, or the mortgage. It gets even more basic than that. One federal executive told me his lower-paid employees who are excepted and continuing to work are worried that they will not be able to pay for gas to get to work. Another executive said he was concerned that employees would start leaving for other jobs. These are not abstract concerns about what may happen – they are real-life problems that are happening today.

One paycheck missed is a problem. What happens if it becomes two? Or more? The reality is that the majority of American households are one or two paychecks away from being insolvent. It is not because they are spendthrifts, or because they are too stupid to save. It is just basic math. So while it is easy for us to say that they will get back pay, and that they just have to adjust for a while, the reality of life is much more harsh. Some creditors will give people a break, but others will not. Even those with little debt may find themselves having no money for groceries or gas.

I know what that is like. My federal career started 40 years ago as a GS-5. I did not come from a family with money and I worked at K-mart while I was in school to pay for my education, so I lived paycheck-to-paycheck. Early in my first year on the job, I ran out of money before the end of one pay period. Then I ran out of gas driving home from work because I had no money to buy gas. My boss, a very kind man named Jim Thompson, helped me out. So when a federal executive tells me his employees are worried about being able to buy gas to get to work, I believe him. And I understand their fear.

We are not close to having a solution for our political dysfunction, but we could have a solution for the abuse of federal workers that it causes. That strikes me as the least we can do to treat federal workers fairly.