For all his talk about a supposed national security crisis on the border with Mexico, President Donald Trump is ignoring the potential crisis the federal shutdown is creating elsewhere in the country.
Trump has essentially taken nine federal departments and dozens of federal agencies hostage in an effort to coerce Congress into spending $5.7 billion to build the bigger, longer border wall he promised on the campaign trail supposedly at Mexico’s expense, but now on the U.S. taxpayers’ tab). Vital government services and responsibilities are being sacrificed in the political standoff, and there’s no end in sight.
In some cases, the shutdown is making communities less safe.
The western United States has experienced a series of catastrophic fires in recent years, yet much of the prevention work needed to reduce the risk is on hold during the shutdown. Firefighter hiring and training is frozen, as are contracts for equipment and aircraft. The U.S. Forest Service has suspended controlled burns of dead timber and dry brush, steps that are designed to reduce the fuel and intensity of future wildfires. This is all essential work that can be done only during the increasingly short off-season, and stopping those efforts leaves both firefighting agencies and wildland communities less prepared.
There are similar problems across federal agencies, as the lengthy shutdown exacerbates existing challenges. There’s already a shortage of air traffic controllers across the aviation system, and the shutdown has suspended training of new ones. Controllers currently on the job are required to work without pay, adding more anxiety to an already stressful job of managing the nation’s airspace.
National parks are being trashed and trampled by visitors while park service employees are furloughed. Security lines at airports are getting longer as Transportation Security Administration workers, who are required to work without pay, have begun calling in sick in large numbers. And some low-income renters who rely on federal housing could face eviction after rental assistance contracts expired on Jan. 1, because the Department of Housing and Urban Development can’t renew them until the government reopens.
These are basic functions of government – protecting residents and public assets. They should not be chips in a high-stakes political poker game.
There will surely be personal crises when more than 800,000 federal workers at shuttered agencies do not get paid. That includes the workers who have been idled by furloughs and “essential” employees who have been required even though there’s no money to pay them. Also losing out are a slew of contractors that provide goods and services to federal agencies and the agencies’ customers.
Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and federal workers are no exception. One missed paycheck – forgoing wages for half the month – can be devastating for families in financially precarious positions. How are these people supposed to pay the rent, their utility bills or their car payments?
Even those who do have a financial cushion could be in for trouble, especially if the shutdown drags on for months or years, as Trump has warned could happen if Democrats do not agree to his demands to fund a bigger border wall.
For some federal workers, financial troubles triggered by missed paychecks could imperil their careers. The union for Federal Bureau of Investigation agents warned in a letter to Congress that agents undergo routine financial background checks to ensure that they are financially stable and responsible. Missing a payment could slow or block an agent’s clearance.
Trump has been dismissive of federal workers’ concerns, although he did pledge Thursday to sign a bill providing them back pay should the shutdown ever end.
“I’m sure that the people that are on the receiving end will make adjustments,” he said over the weekend when asked if he could relate to workers who couldn’t pay their bills.
The longer the shutdown drags on, federal workers – and the people who rely on their services – will have to “make adjustments.” Federal employees will have to manage their own financial panic, while the broader public will watch as the national parks deteriorate, air travel slows, federal forests go unmaintained and the federal safety net for the nation’s most vulnerable frays.
All this for a wall that is rich in exclusionary symbolism but unlikely to have much effect on the problems Trump says he’s trying to solve, such as human trafficking and drug smuggling. There is most certainly a crisis underway. It’s a crisis of confidence in the presidency of the United States.