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Federal collateral damage

Published October 2, 2013 1:01 am

The Washington Post
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

However the antics over a federal shutdown turn out, they have made depressingly clear why so many talented Americans disdain the idea of working for their government.

Who would want to work for an employer so dismissive of its employees that it would heedlessly play games with their livelihoods? People in the employ of their country deserve better than the disregard — even contempt — demonstrated by Congress in its irresponsible brinkmanship.

While the Republican-led House postured by passing doomed legislation, many federal workers spent the weekend assessing the real-world effects of a shutdown.

For the more than 800,000 employees deemed nonessential, the prospect included the loss of a regular paycheck and dipping into savings, missing mortgage payments or borrowing from relatives. More than 2 million employees deemed essential would be told to report to work but would likely experience delays in getting paid.

One Hill staffer told us of having to tell a colleague on maternity leave — after having a baby less than three weeks ago — that she wouldn't get paid during a shutdown. A maintenance worker at the National Air and Space Museum told Washington Post reporters that she had enough savings to manage for two or three weeks and then "I just pray."

Contrast that with blithe comments from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, an instigator of the misguided effort to tie government operations to defunding the Affordable Care Act, when asked if he would forgo his pay in the event of a shutdown: "I will confess, it is a question I have not given a significant amount of thought. At the current time, I have no intention of doing so." Later, Mr. Cruz said he would donate his salary to charity.

How rich is it that members of Congress — who have proved woefully inept at their job — would get paid but not the scientist at the National Institutes of Health working on cancer research; not the congressional staffer assisting constituents with problems; not the attorney with the Department of Housing and Urban Development cementing a deal to build housing for the low-income elderly; not the janitor sweeping out a restroom on the Mall?

When President Obama took office, he talked about making it "cool again" to be a federal employee. Instead, there have been three years of a salary freeze, unpaid furloughs and now this cavalier treatment. We imagine there are federal employees — including veteran professionals with hard-to-replace experience — wondering if they should switch to the private sector or retire. There are college graduates wondering why they would ever consent to have Congress as a boss.

The country's prospects for attracting and retaining the best and brightest are grievously damaged when it treats its employees as pawns.