Talk about upping the ante: an exasperated President Donald Trump, determined to get his promised border wall, told Democratic congressional leaders he would keep the federal government closed for “months or even years” if necessary to get his way, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Friday.
The remark, coming on the 14th day of a partial government shutdown, displays the frustrations of a longtime business owner whose first government job was president, and who is unused to being forced to negotiate with people he outranks. Trump is also loathe to alienate his base, which wants the wall.
Schumer and newly-installed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, met with Trump at the White House for about two hours Friday to discuss the impasse. Trump is refusing to sign legislation to re-open the government unless Congress approves more than $5 billion he wants for a border wall. Congressional Democrats are refusing, with Pelosi saying it was not only not cost-effective, but “an immorality.”
Schumer said after the meeting that “we told the president, we needed the government open. He resisted. In fact he said he’d keep the government closed for a very long period of time, months or even years.” Trump, in a Rose Garden appearance after the session, called it a “productive” meeting but provided no evidence the political foes had made progress on a compromise.
The president also suggested he “may” declare a national emergency to get the wall built despite congressional defiance. And he insisted, “We won’t be opening until it’s solved.”
But the threat also seems hollow in the face of economic reality: not only will a protracted shutdown affect the private sector and consumers, aggravating a bigger segment of the public, but the “essential” federal employees now working without pay are not likely to continue working for free, for years. Without air traffic controllers and TSA agents, airports could not operate. And without border patrol agents, the southern border Trump frets about would, paradoxically, be less guarded.
“It’s outrageous – the disregard and callous attitude that has been displayed towards working class and middle-class people,” says Jacqueline Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. “No one knows how long people can continue to work without pay, but it certainly isn’t indefinitely,” she says, noting that many government workers make $500 a week and can’t go without a paycheck.
More than three-fourths of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 survey by CareerBuilder, a human capital management firm.
Starting salary for a GS-1, the lowest-paid federal worker, is $18,785 a year. The highest-ranking federal civil servant, a GS-15 (which requires a Ph.D.) earns $105,123- $136,659. Trump froze non-military federal worker’s salaries earlier this week, canceling a planned 2.1 percent pay increase. However, the Washington Post reported Friday, Vice President Pence and hundreds of Trump top appointees are set to get raises of about $10,000 a year.
The partial government shutdown affects nine federal departments and some smaller agencies. So far, the impact has been somewhat limited for those not among the 800,000 federal workers who have been furloughed or required to work without pay until a deal is struck.
National parks and museums have been closed or untended, disappointing vacationers. But the impact of the failure of the White House and Congress to agree on a spending plans is widening.
The Internal Revenue Service has almost entirely shut down, depriving taxpayers of experts to answer questions as tax season approaches. The IRS typically does not issue refunds during a shutdown, according to the Wall Street Journal. Prospective homebuyers may have their mortgages delayed, since IRS staffers will not be there to process requests for tax return transcripts. A similar problem exists at the Social Security Administration, which mortgage applicants need to confirm social security numbers to lenders.
Government scientists are not doing research – impacting not only medical and scientific work, but the work of private sector professors and researchers working with public sector scientists. Private sector workers whose jobs are tied to a government entity (such as a restaurant worker at a federal museum) are also out of luck.
Nor is the impact on federal workers limited to the DC area. A study by the website WalletHub found that after DC, the most severely affected states are New Mexico, Maryland, Hawaii, Alaska, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama and Arizona. Several of those are red states – and at least two (West Virginia and Arizona) are states where Democrats hope they can pick up a Senate seat in 2020.
Senate Republicans are already starting to waver in their support for Trump on the shutdown strategy. Two GOPers up for re-election in 2020 – Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Maine’s Susan Collins – said recently they would okay re-opening the government without wall funding.
The requirement that “essential” workers (such as the Secret Service agents who protect the president, TSA agents and the like) keep most Americans spared from the most dramatic effects of a shutdown. But if the shutdown indeed goes on for months, it’s inconceivable that those people will continue to show up at work and not get paid, worker advocates say. Nor would it be easy to replace them: TSA agents, for example, must undergo extensive background checks and training, which also requires federal expenditures. And who would take a job with no paycheck in sight?
“It’s involuntary servitude,” says Simon, whose organization has filed a lawsuit demanding people be paid if they are being required to come to work. “Federal employees are committed to the work they do. But they can’t afford to work without pay.”