Back pay is contradiction of policy
About 800,000 federal employees were furloughed as a result of the government shutdown, while an additional 1.3 million continue to work in positions considered too critical to do without.
Around 350,000 of the furloughed employees have been recalled by the Pentagon in the past few days, but many remain at home waiting for Congress to reauthorize the entities by which they are employed by passing a budget.
The U.S. House of Representatives has made progress towards alleviating the fears of federal employees by unanimously passing a bill guaranteeing all furloughed workers back pay. This raises two major concerns: How does this address the fact that the many furloughed employees can’t go to work, and where is the consistency in the Republican Party’s message of fiscal responsibility?
Unfortunately, our elected officials seem more concerned with burning a hole in the taxpayers’ pockets in a cynical game of chicken over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
For anyone concerned that the bill ensuring furloughed workers receive back pay won’t pass, the Senate has already expressed support for the bill, and President Barack Obama has stated that he would sign it into law. Furthermore, Congress has granted federal employment back pay in each of the 16 other government shutdowns since 1976.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who supports the legislation, recently drew ire for comments he made describing the back pay as a “paid vacation” for federal employees. If it is a vacation, it isn’t one they asked for — but he raises a fair point. Shouldn’t the federal employees be allowed to go back to work?
“Congress would rather have us stay home and go ahead and pay us for that, but not get any work out of it,” said Julie Flores Kriegsfield, a federal employee with the Federal Aviation Administration. “I don’t know how they feel like that’s a reasonable mindset.”
The drain on the economy is a double whammy if we pay individuals for services that aren’t being provided.
Kriegsfield gave her comments to the Boston Globe, which is reporting that furlough pay would negate whatever savings the shutdown provided. Most of the $1.4 billion expense incurred by the last shutdown in 1995 was directly tied to paying back furloughed employers. The Globe also identified several “marginal” costs such as “the expense of getting the government back on its feet once the shutdown is over and paying for higher bids submitted by contractors who are hedging against future instability.”
This brings me to my other concern: Where is the consistency from the Republican Party?
Economists tried to describe the shutdown as “a fight to save America from turning into a bankrupt European-style welfare state,” and that those in favor of a shutdown are advocates of fiscal responsibility — because nothing says fiscally responsible like paying people not to go to work and defaulting on our national debt.
If Congressional Republicans were really concerned about the economic impact of “Obamacare” then they wouldn’t be threatening to seriously damage the global economy by forcing the U.S. to default on its debts. And yet they continue to do so as it were their only hope of gaining leverage in the situation.
It’s no surprise that Congress can’t see how nonsensical it is to pay people for work they aren’t doing. But the longer this debacle continues, the easier it will be for the American people to send the right federal employees home in 2014: the entire Congress.
Max Weintraub is a senior studying creative writing and Italian studies. Follow him @mweintra13.