A Border Patrol Agent Who Has To Work Without Pay Wants You To Stop Saying The Shutdown Is No Big Deal

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I got an email Thursday evening from Erik Finkelnburg, a Customs and Border Patrol agent based in southern California.

He's sick of hearing people say the government shutdown isn't a big deal because 85% of government employees are still at work — a "government slimdown," as Fox News has called it.

Like about 1.5 million federal civilian employees, Finkelnburg is among that 85% because he's "essential" to the protection of life and property. But until the shutdown is resolved, he won't get paid for any work he's performed after Sept. 30.

That certainly feels like a big deal to him, especially since like many federal workers, he's scheduled to be paid on Tuesday, Oct. 15  — meaning his missing pay is about to go from being a theoretical problem to a real one.

He wrote to me about the upcoming pay day:

Money was already committed and obligated through Sept. 30, which means that everyone on the government payroll will get a partial paycheck. Because of days off and rotating shifts, that check could be anywhere between 50 and 70% of normal wages for the period.

If this thing happens to drag out another two weeks, there won’t even be a partial  paycheck. Instead, there will be a lot of families —  many of them single income with kids —  wondering how they’re going to pay their mortgages, car notes, utility bills, or put food on the table... 

Will 800,000 federal employees missing some payments completely crash the economy? [ed. note: It's actually closer to two million.] No, probably not. Could it drastically alter the lives and stability of a lot of people? Absolutely. I can honestly say that morale among the rank and file of the Border Patrol has tanked since the debt ceiling became a national issue a few years ago. Most agents are too worried about the uncertainty of being able to provide for their families. 

Erik notes that the shutdown is harming the economy, which is true, and that it's bad for federal workers' families, which is also true. But I'd like to focus on the fact that it's no way to run an organization.

Imagine if the firm you work for would periodically, due to pissing matches among the board of directors, tell employees that they won't be paid, for now, but they should keep showing up for work. And imagine that at the same time your organization would shut down various client services without giving any clarity about when they would resume.

Would that help your organization succeed in reaching its goals? Would it be good for recruitment and retention of talented employees? Would clients consider it to be acceptable?

Of course not.

If you believe that the federal government is an essential part of a functioning society and economy, and that most of the time when it spends money it is doing so for a good reason, you should be strongly opposed to a government shutdown.

You shouldn't want a shutdown even if you believe, as I do, that the federal government does a significant number of things it shouldn't do at all, and could be more efficient when it does the things it should be doing. A shutdown won't make the organization more efficient — it will just make it more dysfunctional.

But here's the thing: A lot of Republicans in Congress today view the federal government as basically a parasite on society. They think it's unimportant that a shutdown makes the federal government less effective. Perhaps that's even a feature: If the federal government is seen as dysfunctional, people might be disinclined to expand it.

House Republicans have taken a strategy of passing "rifle shot" funding bills that would reopen small parts of the government — like memorials on the National Mall and the processing of veterans' benefits — because they believe that a stoppage of the vast majority of federal discretionary spending is no big deal.

Or at least, that's how a lot of Republicans view the government in theory. In practice, House Republicans couldn't pass a full slate of appropriations bills this year because they couldn't agree on specific program cuts to meet their ambitious target for overall budget cuts. A government shutdown provides a great opportunity for a primal scream when you hate "big government" in the abstract but aren't willing to get specific about what should be cut.

It's stupid. And it's hurting a lot of real people. But Republicans are doing it because they have decided that conservative principles are better served by causing the federal government to fail than by trying to help it succeed.

Voters seem to be catching on that Republicans are doing bad things to the government and, as a result, to the economy and the public. We'll have to wait another year to see if they've become sufficiently convinced of national Republicans' unsuitability for governance to strip them of the House majority.



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