Several observers termed the shutdown that separated 800,000 federal workers from their jobs on Tuesday a “mess.” A few called it a “debacle.” I think stronger language might be in order to describe what a small group of Tea Party demagogues in Congress has foisted on our country.
In addition to ruining the lives of a lot of innocent people, many already suffering financially from the effects of a funding sequester, what the ultra-right wingers have done will waste vast amounts of our tax money and could be downright dangerous for many of us.
The government shut down briefly several times during my quarter century of employment with the U.S. Forest Service. In addition, a major unit merger advertised as a cost-saving measure seriously affected my work and the work of those around me. It ought to be obvious that when employees are engaged in making contingency plans for big changes in their organization, or carrying them out, they have little time to do the normal work they are paid to do. That work has to be done some time. Often, catching up after order is restored involves hiring additional employees or paying contractors. Each day the current shutdown continues will cost us billions of scarce tax dollars to be paid in the future.
Others have thoroughly discussed the huge negative impact on our still-fragile economy of abruptly canceling the wages of 800,000 people and suspending contract work that pumps mega dollars into private firms. Tying up federal funds also has a ripple-down effect that damages important state and local government activities
|YOU are nonessential. (well, maybe)|
Far scarier than economic consequences are risks to public health and safety inherent in the shutdown. Despite congressional exemptions to keep military and some other categories of employees on the job, there are risks in the present situation. Some result from the complexities of deciding precisely which employees are essential. Even when that exercise seems straightforward, it often is not.
For example, the Forest Service contingency plan for the shutdown, issued on September 20, said, “This plan assumes some Agency activities will continue that are essential to protect life and property. . ."
The first activity listed is “Fire Suppression including fire fighters and all necessary equipment costs . . .”
Sounds like an easy plan to carry out. But what seems a no brainer is not--a whole lot of difficult judgments are involved. They have to do with the nature of the fire suppression organization.
The firefighting organization is a combination of a small number of full-time professionals, a larger number of Forest Service people who have other full-time jobs and who work on fire problems only as needed, and an even larger number of contractors and part-time employees. Exactly who is essential can be a bit mysterious.
Consider this possibility. A relatively new full-time employee, let’s call her Josephine, works at a low-level purchasing job in a small unit. Prioritizing the unit’s work indicates the best course of action is to furlough Josephine as “nonessential.” Remaining employees with more experience could carry out the most important unit activities.
However, Josephine has completed some special procurement training and done satisfactory work when called to help handle logistics on a major forest fire. As a qualified fire support person, she could be called away from her normal job for fire duty, but it is impossible to predict when that might happen, or if it might happen over a period of weeks or months, or possibly even years.
Is Josephine “nonessential” because of her primary job, or “essential” because of fire assignments that may, or may not, materialize? How that seemingly small decision is made could be a factor in putting lives or property at risk.
In another agency, reports of shutdown effects say “routine food inspections have been suspended.” Sounds somewhat innocent, but think about it. Do you want chances taken with the quality of the food you eat? What god-like person decides which food inspections are routine, and which are “essential"?
And yesterday, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, told a Senate committee that he could not guarantee our national safety because 70 percent of our intelligence community has been furloughed. Clapper pointed out that spies who are poorly paid, or paid not at all, tend to switch sides in the world of espionage. Imagine that. Apparently the Tea Party crowd in Congress could not.
The federal government shutdown is shaping up to be much more than a mess or a debacle. It’s looking a lot like a full-blown disaster.