US federal employees are now hostage to Donald Trump’s ego

The government shutdown is now the longest in US history. But the president isn’t done sulking yet

January 23, 2019

Federal prison guards are pulling double shifts. When they can get to work, that is. Federal penitentiaries are often in remote rural areas and since the guards aren’t getting paid, some can’t afford to buy petrol.

Transportation Security officers, the ones who poke through your bag before you get on the plane, are calling in sick: ten per cent of them, as of 21stJanuary. They might simply be fed up or they may be looking for other work. In any case, airport queues are longer than ever.

The government shutdown has now gone on for more than a month—it is the longest in US history. 800,000 people are either working for free—because they’re deemed “essential employees—or else they’ve been furloughed. Some of them will get back pay; some, contract workers who tend to be janitors, food service workers, groundskeepers and other low-wage staff, will not.

They are hostages to Donald Trump’s ego. Republicans controlled Congress for two years and refused to authorise the $5bn-plus Trump demands for a “wall” across the US-Mexico border. Yet now that Democrats hold the House of Representatives, Trump’s turned the whole thing into a 2020 campaign stunt, aimed at his most fervently xenophobic supporters. In 2018, he had expressed willingness to sign a Bill that devoted only $1.3bn to a border barrier and protected the “Dreamers,” kids illegally brought to the US by their parents, but anti-immigration advocates such as Ann Coulter raised a ruckus. Trump backed away.

Recently he offered a “compromise:” $5.7bn for the wall, but also a three-year pause in deporting those under Temporary Protected Status, people who fled violence in the Sudan, Haiti, El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as a three-year pause on deporting the “Dreamers.” House speaker Nancy Pelosi pronounced it unacceptable, saying Trump’s offer did not “represent a good faith effort to restore certainty to people’s lives.”

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, missing in action for weeks as Trump and the House Democrats argued, has pledged to allow the Senate to vote on a Bill to re-open the government and fund the Great Wall of Trump. With Democrats generally united against it, and some Republicans urged to take a tough line by their constituents over the shutdown, it is unlikely to win the 60 votes it needs.

Trump and the Republicans hope that their core supporters despise Washington so much that keeping it closed is actually seen as a positive move. Fox News reminds them over and over that government is the enemy. But most federal employees don’t work in Washington. The government employs people in every community across the nation: food inspectors in farm communities, rangers in national parks, meteorologists at National Weather Service stations, scientists who inspect chemical plants, water treatment facilities and oil refineries to make sure they are not releasing toxic materials, the Securities and Exchange Commission (the Wall Street watchdog), school lunch programmes, and the Coast Guard. Many of these workers are now relying on food handouts and hoping that somehow their banks will let them miss a mortgage payment or two.

Trump is betting that his true believers think their lives will be untouched by a mere 800,000 federal employees. But as long as those people aren’t getting paychecks, they won’t go to the supermarket or the cinema or a restaurant or buy shoes for their kids or get their cars repaired. Local economies will take a hit. The national economy will, too. People are suffering: some can’t afford their medications. Some can’t afford their rent. But as long as Trump continues sulking in his tent, scared that Fox News pundits will criticise him, the nation remains paralysed. As California congresswoman Jackie Speier exasperatedly tweeted to Ann Coulter, “Please tell the president it’s OK to open up the government.”