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US government shutdown: workers pay the price for Congress’ ‘budget wars’

Anne Meador and John Zangas report from Washington DC on the consequences of the deadlock in Congress

October 1, 2013
6 min read

At the stroke of midnight on October 1, the workings of the US government began to grind to a halt.

Under the US constitution, the House and Senate must agree on an appropriations (spending) bill and the president must sign it, else the government doesn’t have legal authority to spend money. The Republican party is using the budget process to attack the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama’s healthcare plan also known as ‘Obamacare’ – a bill so nauseating to them that the Republican-controlled House has voted to repeal it 40 times.

Their latest blackmail offer is to withhold funding unless the individual mandate, a requirement that certain people purchase health insurance, is delayed by one year. President Obama and the Democrats however are blasting the Republicans for holding the country hostage to their radically conservative base.

The consequences of a government shutdown are grave for federal workers, citizens and taxpayers, and the economy of the Washington DC region. About 800,000 federal workers classified as ‘non-essential’ will be sent home without pay today. Many federal contracts will expire, so contract employees will also be affected. The military, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and ‘essential’ functions such as nuclear plant security will not be affected. But many government services will become unavailable.

The Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency will effectively shut down. National parks will close, gun permits and passports won’t be issued. Naturally the poor and elderly will be hurt most: No new applications can be processed for Medicare and Social Security, or childcare services. After a couple of weeks veterans benefits will slow to a trickle.

The effect in DC

The District of Columbia, which relies on Congressional appropriation to operate, will be hit hard. Although DC Mayor Vincent Gray threatens to defy the shutdown, some basic services such as trash pick-up will cease, leading some to suggest dumping their trash at Congress’ doorstep. They should, because the economy of the DC metropolitan region could suffer a $200 million hit per day in lost taxes when 225,000 federal workers and thousands of federal contract employees don’t get paid, plus lost tourism dollars when the Smithsonian museums, national monuments and the National Zoo are shuttered.

Government-hating conservatives are cheering on the potential shutdown. The irony is, costs will outweigh any savings on the backs of federal workers. The threat of a shutdown has already taken a bite: agencies have spent the last several days preparing contingency plans in case of a shutdown. Countless productive hours have gone into getting ready. The last shutdown in 1995 – twenty-one days long – cost $1.4 billion, which would be $2.1 billion today.

Federal workers are bearing a large part of the burden in the budget wars. Congress hasn’t passed a budget for real since 1997 – the closest was an Omnibus Spending Bill in April 2009. Two years ago, they couldn’t even agree on a Continuing Resolution (the bills used to keep the government going without a full budget), so they devised automatic budget cuts so disagreeable to both parties that, it was reasoned, they would force themselves to compromise before the time bomb exploded in March 2013. They didn’t, and the resulting budget shortfall furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal employees for several days over the summer.

Unfortunately, the government is on the same trajectory as the private sector. Because of the sequester and hiring freezes, civil servants are overworked. Because of wage freezes, they are underpaid. The sequester may have woken a sleeping giant. Federal workers are frustrated with Congress’ dereliction of duty, and the furloughs hit them where it hurts. The looming government shutdown is only making them angrier.

Will federal workers protest?

Recently, low-wage federal workers have held several strikes. But we probably won’t see masses of federal workers with signs on Capitol Hill in the near future.

Why not? Many are afraid they would lose their jobs by protesting. An arrest for civil disobedience is a black mark against renewing a security clearance, a sure way to lose your job. Government jobs are not easy to get and few want to jeopardize a secure job with high pay and retirement. It may also be a matter of temperament. Government jobs attract conservative people seeking security. The Department of Defense is the largest federal employer, where many civilian workers are former military. For them, challenging authority and questioning the status quo are antithetical to their personalities and conditioning.

But many managers are growing impatient, even angry at what they see as partisan obstinance. They are beginning to speak out openly against Congress in the workplace.

Last week when Congressman Ted Cruz read Dr Seuss’ ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ during his 21-hour fillibuster, it became a sore subject. The children’s book is about an obstinate person, bent on imposing his will no matter the consequences. Ted Cruz was oblivious to the fact that his time-filler aptly described a willful and uncaring Congress.

People feel angry, frustrated and powerless, because they see Congress as dysfunctional at best, broken at worst, and simply unable to fulfill its basic constitutional responsibilities. Insular Congressmen and women, who still get paid during a shutdown, are exempt from the consequences of a shutdown even as they tamper with the livelihood of hundreds of thousands in the working class. To compound the matter, in a couple of weeks there will be another showdown on the debt ceiling.

You won’t see a mob of protesters this week. But anger is growing, and events become unpredictable when the people are roused.

Anne Meador and John Zangas are independent journalists with the DC Media Group

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