Catherine Rampell: Turns out Republicans don’t care about the dignity of a paycheck after all

A closed sign is posted on the gate of Smithsonian's National Zoo, Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Washington. Smithsonian's National Zoo is closed due to the partial government shutdown. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Washington • One useful development has come out of this pointless shutdown: It has revealed how little Republican politicians actually care about many of the principles they claim to champion.

Eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse”? You’d never know this mattered, given their insistence that Democrats agree to spend “only” $5 billion on a wall that is a nonsolution to a nonproblem.

Valuing “freedom” and “property rights”? Hard to square with proposals to invoke eminent domain to build a border wall and use asset forfeiture money to pay for it (an idea endorsed by the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, no less).

But perhaps the biggest swindle revealed by the shutdown is Republican officials’ commitment to the “dignity of work.”

For years, the GOP has tried to slash the safety net on the premise that lazy Americans need to be weaned off government handouts. The objective is not to punish the poor, they say, or even to save money. Rather, it’s to imbue dejected Americans with greater feelings of self-worth through an honest paycheck.

And yet, with astounding callousness, Republicans have brushed aside the hundreds of thousands of Americans now being denied the dignity of that paycheck thanks to an unnecessary government shutdown.

Government workers are selling their children’s toys on Craigslist, rationing their insulin, delaying surgeries. The White House and other Republicans have largely dismissed such hardships, insisting that it’s no biggie for these civil servants to go without pay for a little while. After all, they note, federal workers will likely be awarded back pay when the government reopens.

Whenever that is.

In fact, White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Kevin Hassett told “PBS NewsHour” that workers laid off during the shutdown are “better off,” since they can go on vacation but “they don’t have to use their vacation days.” Other Trump advisers have made similar comments.

This, of course, ignores the estimated 420,000 air-traffic controllers, TSA screeners, corrections officers, Border Patrol agents and others deemed “essential” who’ve had to continue working without pay (and in some cases actually cancel scheduled vacations). For these and the 380,000 workers on furlough, a promise of eventual back pay hardly feels like being “better off.”

Not only because that back pay may arrive weeks after mortgage payments and other bills come due. And not only because many have had to turn to the “handouts” — free meals, trips to food pantries, unemployment insurance — that the GOP has spent decades stigmatizing.

But also because they truly do find meaning, pride and feelings of self-worth through their jobs — i.e., all those psychic benefits of employment that Republicans usually talk about.

Consider the legions of federal employees who safeguard the natural world through their work at the Environment Protection Agency or the National Park Service; who help businesses make informed decisions through data they collect for the Census Bureau; who inspect food for the Food and Drug Administration to prevent outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli or listeria.

These public servants took such positions not just for the paycheck. They took them because they find meaning in the work that they’re currently barred from doing. Being told to stay home — or even to report to work, but indefinitely forgo compensation for their labor — is not just financially painful. It’s demoralizing.

And finally, there are the federal contract workers who have also been laid off during the shutdown.

Historically, these workers have gotten zero back pay after the government reopens, in part because getting them made whole is complicated. Unlike those on federal payrolls, the government doesn’t necessarily know who all of these contract workers are, making it challenging to cut them a check directly. It’s also not clear how to get private contractors to reimburse such workers for the lost time without amending thousands of existing contracts. A group of Democratic senators including Tina Smith (Minn.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) is developing legislation that aims to address this problem.

In the meantime, these workers are not on “vacation.” Many — such as Larry Howard, a furloughed National Zoo guest-services contract worker who makes $13.50 an hour — live paycheck to paycheck. About a third of the estimated 1 million contract employees at unfunded agencies make under $15 per hour, according to the labor organization Good Jobs Nation.

These workers, like their counterparts on federal payrolls, would like to show up for their jobs and get paid. They’d like elected officials to see the dignity in their work, too.

Or at least, said Howard: “I’d like them to treat us as well as they treat the pandas.”

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. She frequently covers economics, public policy, politics and culture, with a special emphasis on data-driven journalism. Before joining The Post, she wrote about economics and theater for the New York Times.