How much money do you earn in a week?
Take that number, multiply by three, and subtract it from your checking account. Where does it leave you? Will you be able to make your rent or mortgage this month? Can you put gas in your car and buy groceries?
In 2013, I was a federal contractor. When the government shut down, so did my office. Projects I was responsible for ground to a halt. For three weeks, I went without a job or a paycheck. Even though my job required security clearance, contractors in my office were automatically deemed “nonessential” and indefinitely furloughed. I couldn’t look for other work because I still had to be ready and available to show up the moment the government reopened.
Congress didn’t care about my infant son or pregnant wife. When lawmakers finally forged an agreement and my office reopened, contractors like me didn’t get paid for the time it had taken for the rich and powerful to stop squabbling. I had to play catch-up to make up the missed time, while those three weeks of pay were simply gone, siphoned from my income.
While federal employees can expect to eventually receive back pay for the shutdown period, contractors will not.
As the federal government enters the new year without funding, 800,000 federal employees remain furloughed. If the past is any indication, these employees can hope to eventually be paid, though they don’t know when. With more than three-quarters of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, thanks in part to stagnating wages after repeated spending cuts, federal employees can’t afford to wait to start getting income again.
But the civilian employees working directly for the federal government make up less than 40 percent of the total federal civilian labor force. More than 60 percent are contractors, most of whom work directly alongside federal employees but are employed through third-party agencies exempt from most benefits. While federal employees can expect to eventually receive back pay missed during the shutdown, contractors will not. By the next pay period, many of these families will have to choose whether to stop paying rent, mortgages, and grocery bills.
The 2013 shutdown was the predictable result of a legitimate, if asinine, political impasse. The current shutdown, on the other hand, is a brazen temper tantrum by an adult child too self-absorbed to see his own incompetence.
Did Trump shutter the government in the futile hopes that the Democrats would be blamed for something he already claimed credit for?
Donald Trump campaigned on the absurd promise of somehow manipulating one of our allies into paying for an unnecessary construction project intended to stop a nonexistent problem. Now, with few significant legislative successes and facing a hostile 116th Congress, the president has bowed to the ever-shifting whims of his shrinking base and insisted that American taxpayers should now begin paying for a “wall.”
Most of Trump’s actions, while objectionable and pitiful, are easy enough to understand. This is not. Did the president think he could strong-arm Mitch McConnell and the others in the Senate to rewrite their rules and push wall funding through on a party-line vote? This would have gotten him what he wanted, but it would also have torpedoed any possibility of bipartisan progress in the new year. Or did he eagerly and unapologetically shutter the government in the futile hopes that the Democrats would be blamed for something he already claimed credit for?
Whatever the motivation, getting the government back up and running will be a challenge. McConnell has already signaled that he will not pass legislation that the president will not sign. If he did, an appropriations bill by the 116th Congress could become law (and reopen the government) if Trump simply refused to sign it for 10 days. But keeping the government shut down for nearly two additional weeks just to save face would likely do the president even more political harm.
In the meantime, the bank accounts of federal contractors and employees continue to drain.