The Shutdown’s Aftermath: Yes, Government Has a Role. Now We Have to Contain the Damage
As our nation finally emerged last week from the five-week shutdown, the longest in history, something perhaps significant happened on the exit ramp.
Americans, it seems, were reminded that government plays an important role in their lives.
Some evidence: 21 percent of Americans said they had personally been affected by the shutdown, and 46 percent said they knew someone affected that made the difference.
Maybe it was due to the mounting stories of inconvenience, or worse, caused by the shutdown – lengthening airport security lines, 38 million people threatened with a loss of SNAP benefits, bus, train and plane crashes uninvestigated, gaps in overseeing prescription drugs and food safety, and a slowdown in processing income tax refunds.
Or maybe it was due to the stories of the workers themselves. Missed pay checks meant bills unpaid, credit ratings threatened, the worry of losing a home. Workers stood in line at food pantries, drove Uber to make ends meet, desperately sold things on Ebay.
Maybe it was due to all of those things.
Joseph A. McCartin is a history professor at Georgetown University and author of the book, “Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike that Changed America.”
Things were different when a newly-sworn-in President Reagan fired and replaced more than 11,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) after members went on strike. That momentous event, McCartin notes, ushered in an era of diminished union bargaining power.
Now, McCartin argues, we could be seeing the very opposite.
On Friday, the day the shutdown finally ended, air traffic up and down the East Coast was snarled and New York’s LaGaurdia Airport shut down traffic altogether. It was, McMartin said, a consequence of air traffic controllers calling in sick. It led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to tweet, “The #TrumpShutdown has already pushed hundreds of thousands of Americans to the breaking point. Now it’s pushing our airspace to the breaking point too.”
In his op-ed in the Washington Post, McCartin discusses workers such as air traffic controllers, IRS employees, and others who worked without pay despite the hardships. He seems to view these workers as an inflection point, a kind of opposite reaction to what happened in 1981.
“In time, we might come to see the controllers’ actions on Friday as a historical bookend, signaling – finally – the end of that era. It also shows that labor still has some power, at least when public opinion is on its side.”
The air traffic controllers strike in 1981 came at a time when Reagan could tap the rightward lean toward deregulation. But today, the resurgent energy of progressive politics created support for the workers and for the services they perform. Indeed, unions these days are scoring victories across the board – and public sector unions like NEA, AFT and ADFSCME are thriving, despite dire predictions of what would happen in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision.
McCartin concludes, “A small group of strategically placed workers just acted to help bring a widely detested shutdown to an end.” They and the other federal employees whose work was missed showed us what we stand to lose when campaign catch-phrases replace a commitment to public service.
That sounds like a positive development. But there is also a lot of bad news to report. Human needs advocates are still sorting out the damage caused by the shutdown and how long it will take to repair. We don’t know, for example, how many people came close to losing their affordable housing because of late government payments or because contracts were not renewed during the shutdown. We don’t know how many SNAP beneficiaries will go without food late next month because they couldn’t make their benefits stretch after their monthly allotments were distributed early in January. We don’t know if working Americans will have to wait longer to get their IRS refunds in the mail, and, if so, how long they will have to wait.
Just as disturbingly: we don’t know how much damage was done to the institution of government itself, although we do know that government employees are resigning and they will not come back.
Charles M. Smith initially refused to let the Washington Post use his name when a columnist contacted him to talk about the shutdown. The longtime IRS employee of 32 years didn’t want to be named “because of possible retaliation from the administration or others.”
He changed his mind, and also decided to move up his planned date of retirement.
In his interview with the Post, he talked about the idealism that led him to enter public service.
“Over time I found great pride and satisfaction working for the government. I believed that I was making a valuable contribution to my country by choosing public service,” he said. He quoted John F. Kennedy. “’Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ I answered President Kennedy’s call and I dedicated my whole career to public service,” he said. “But President Trump has changed all that…The rhetoric and falsehoods spoken by Mr. Trump and his allies have changed everything.”
And so: Smith is retiring, effective the last day of February.
He says that his “public servant heart and spirit are both broken.”
He, like other government workers, knows there is a possibility that we can repeat the government shutdown in another 17 days.
“I’m done with this merry-go-round of uncertainty. I no longer feel valued as an employee….I’ve lost that passion….I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve been crying over this….and because what I feel the current shutdown has taken away from me….I’ve lost the dignity of public service. I’ve lost the honor.”
A shutdown has many casualties – or, as CHN Executive Director Deborah Weinstein noted last Friday, hostages.
Charles M. Smith is but one of them.