Roughly 2 million civilian employees work for the federal government. They are men and women of every racial background and from every state in the country. Yet there is one thing they all have in common: They made a choice to serve, even knowing, in many cases, that they could be making more money in the private sector.
Unfortunately, it appears that we have a president who, rather than leading the nation’s public workforce, consistently chooses to belittle it. The latest example came when the president took to Twitter on Thursday morning, day six of an unnecessary government shutdown instigated by congressional Republicans at President Donald Trump’s behest. In what has become a familiar pattern of politicizing the largely nonpartisan, nuts-and-bolts work of the federal government, Trump tried to exert political pressure on congressional Democrats to fund his ineffective border wall by asking: “Do the Dems realize that most of the people not getting paid are Democrats?”
What the president fails to understand is that federal employees don’t go to work wearing red or blue jerseys. What they do wear are the badges of law enforcement and the hats of park rangers and the uniforms of first responders, and they make up the backbone of our government. They bring their skills and expertise to strengthen our nation and make a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens, regardless of political affiliation.
As the senior senator from Virginia, I represent hundreds of thousands of federal employees and service members. I have no idea how many of them are Democrats, but I know this: They include voters and nonvoters alike; they are independents and Republicans and Democrats and libertarians and vegetarians. Those who are hurt by this shutdown include Forest Service firefighters and National Weather Service forecasters in red states, and U.S. marshals and Drug Enforcement Administration agents in blue states. What distinguishes them isn’t their partisan affiliation – it’s their commitment to serving our country.
Like all Americans, federal employees have a right to hold personal political beliefs. But what separates your average public servant from the president is an ability and, indeed, a legal obligation to leave their political views at home and do their jobs without regard for partisan politics.
The president who declared that he would be “proud” to shut down the government is holding one-quarter of the federal government’s agencies hostage in an effort to get $5.7 billion for a wall that experts say would fail to improve border security – in the process treating 800,000 federal workers like poker chips from one of his failed casinos. Sadly, this is only the latest salvo by a president determined to attack and undermine our country’s public servants.
It started with the hiring freezes that threw a wrench into the day-to-day operations of nearly every federal agency – with no apparent benefit to the taxpayers. It continued with executive orders undermining workplace protections for federal workers and their ability to organize as part of a union. The targeting was compounded by the administration’s plan to cut retirement benefits for 2.6 million federal retirees and survivors, and recently led to an attempt by the president to arbitrarily freeze the pay of the entire federal workforce. Thankfully, the Senate saw the shortsightedness of that endeavor and voted to override the administration’s freeze. The House can and should follow suit.
Instead of receiving thanks for their service, right now thousands of them are simply wondering if their next paycheck is going to come, and how they are going to pay their bills. About 380,000 federal workers have been furloughed – forced to take unpaid time off – while another 420,000 are being expected to work without pay for the duration of the shutdown.
During one of the busiest travel times of the year, thousands of air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration agents worked without pay so that Americans could get home to spend the holidays with their families. Meanwhile, some of them didn’t know how they were going to pay for Christmas presents for their own kids.
While the Senate moved before Christmas to guarantee back pay for any federal worker hurt by the shutdown, the House left town without voting on the bill. This is to say nothing of the thousands of federal contractors also affected by this shutdown, most of whom are unlikely to ever receive retroactive pay.
These are real people with real families who are struggling. They aren’t bargaining chips, Mr. President. Please stop holding hard-working federal employees hostage. It’s time to work with Congress to reopen the government and end this pointless, painful government shutdown.
Mark Warner, a Democrat, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate.
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