Tom Clyde: Unpaid federal workers should walk
I was excited to watch the presidential address from the Oval Office on Tuesday night. These tend to be big deals, when the President puts the full presidential mojo behind his words. This is Truman announcing the atomic bomb, Kennedy on the Cuban missile crisis, LBJ announcing he would not run again, and Nixon resigning kind of stuff. An Oval Office address is often a pivotal point in history.
I wish I could say that I tuned in on Tuesday as part of my obligation as a citizen to follow important issues of the day. I can’t. My only interest in watching Trump’s speech the other night was the potential entertainment value. Would he veer off script and talk about space invaders at Mar-a-Lago? Would he explain the sinister connection between Hillary’s emails and the caravan coming to murder us all in our beds? It was really a question of what brand of crazy we would get.
It was disappointing. The Trump impersonator who delivered the speech appeared to be heavily sedated, reading from a teleprompter that was misaligned with the camera (isn’t there anybody in the White House who can get even that right?). The effect was that he was talking to somebody out in the hallway, unwilling to look the American people in the eye while making up spurious reasons to spend $25 billion on a wall out in the middle of the desert. There must have been a shock collar attached so that if there was the slightest indication that he was going to squirt off into bizzaro world, a responsible staffer (and who is left that fits that description?) could zap him back to the prepared text.
The government is still partly shut down, and thousands of federal employees are expected to show up and work without pay. Sure, they will get reimbursed, so on paper they are made whole. In reality, a TSA screener making $30,000 a year most likely has cash flow issues. If they don’t get paid, they can’t pay rent, buy groceries and all the other expenses normal people have. Their credit scores will get crushed through no fault of their own.
It ripples through. The deli next to the closed federal office building isn’t serving any lunches. Surely there is an unpaid federal employee who is about to be evicted from a Trump-owned apartment. The motels in gateway towns that rely on the visitors to the national parks aren’t filling their rooms. Sooner or later, the motel owners can’t pay their mortgages. Hotel and restaurant workers get their hours cut. You would think the Utah congressional delegation would be out there doing everything they could to get temporary funding in place to open the parks that are so important to the economy of southern Utah. But you would be wrong. They are cowering under their desks refusing to say or do anything for fear of landing on the wrong side of the issue. As if there were a right side to shutting things down over an unrelated issue.
Any interesting twist on the shutdown came up the other day. Those of us who are self-employed, including 1,200 local realtors, need to pay our quarterly taxes on Tuesday. The IRS is closed. Is there anybody there to deposit the quarterly payments when they get delivered? If not, that will begin to affect the cash flow of the portions of the government that are still functional.
The budget they are fighting over is for the fiscal year that started back in October. So they are fully three months late getting a budget in place for nine cabinet agencies. They haven’t had a budget in place for years. They keep adopting “continuing resolutions” that say, in effect, “just keep doing what you did last year because we’re incompetent and incapable of actually prioritizing government spending.” They haven’t done their constitutionally mandated job in years, but we keep re-electing them anyway.
Neither side is going to give in. There will be no breakthrough in Washington until the shut down has tangible consequences. If the unpaid TSA agents and air traffic controllers say, “screw this,” and walk off the job, the airports would shut down. The impact of that would be a little different from missing the park ranger’s talk about the geology of Bryce Canyon. Strand a hundred thousand people in airports while Congress and Trump diddle over funding for the wall, and things would get interesting very quickly. Public servants working without pay is noble, but forcing Congress to actually deal with its own mess by walking out is their patriotic duty. They shouldn’t enable Congressional inaction.
I used to dream of a federal government that could actually do great things. Now I wish they could muster the minimal competence to just keep the lights on. And even that is looking like an unrealistic expectation.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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Tom Kelly reflects on ski season. “Saturday ski groups didn’t work this year. We waited longer in lift lines, often silently. More people discovered our personal secret access points. But we survived. And we skied.”