Warning: I am going to vent again. I write this before the final votes on the Senate package, but after the House Republicans careened from one farce to another, and after another ratings agency, Fitch, threatened a U.S. credit downgrade based on the same compelling logic as Standard & Poor’s in 2011 — that the real concern is not default but our extraordinary political dysfunction. I thought about yet another column on this process, but realized that it would be both repetitive and untimely. So I will vent about something else.
The costs of the prolonged government shutdown are broad and deep. They are there in national security and homeland security. The tough sanctions we have in place against Iran are not being fully enforced; many of the government employees who monitor violations and ensure the sanctions are in place are furloughed. Support personnel who help on homeland and national security are not there. With National Institutes of Health scientists barred from their labs, the lab animals used in critical medical research experiments are left to their own devices; those who were in the middle of experiments or trials cannot be monitored, rendering the research useless or setting it back by months. The multiple private businesses tied to tourism at national parks — restaurants, hotels, gift shops, river guides, grocery stores — are devastated. And on and on. The hit on the economy, via less spending, will reduce our next quarter’s economic growth by a noticeable amount, made more noticeable because it is occurring at a time of economic stagnation.
Then there are the human costs. Some government employees have enough savings to carry them through weeks of no pay. But large numbers, like so many in the private sector, live from paycheck to paycheck or have a very thin safety net. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition recently did a poignant piece on a career employee at the Bureau of Prisons who is working (every employee at the prison is essential, for obvious reasons) but getting no pay except for a pending check for the week before the shutdown occurred. He estimated his normal biweekly take-home pay at $1,300 — but the one-week check he will get will have full deductions taken out for the two weeks, leaving him with roughly $200. He has two kids in college and said to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, “How am I going to pay my bills? What am I going to do for child care? How do I put fuel in the truck? I mean, I have a pickup truck. I live in southwestern PA. You know, it’s $80 to fill that tank. There’s a whole range of things and the thing is, you can’t just call off. If you call off, you’re messing with the person that’s on shift right now. He can’t go home.”
This government worker will ultimately receive his back pay. But he and numerous others, including many who make much less, including many Capitol Police applauded by members of Congress after the harrowing Oct. 4 chase and shooting, may have to lose money by dipping into savings, maxing out on credit cards and paying exorbitant interest, or going to payday lenders. Those costs will never be paid back — and they are the people who can least afford it. Then there are the tens of thousands of people working for government contractors who have to lay off employees without pay. They will never get paid back for the work they miss.
Damaging as the shutdown is for governance, it is minor compared with the long-term damage of the sequester. The FBI has had to reduce its focus on white-collar and organized crime to deal with the higher, immediate priority of cybersecurity. The food-inspection infrastructure has been hit, reducing the number of inspectors in the U.S. and in foreign plants that ship food to the United States. This will undoubtedly lead to more outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli, with a weakened Centers for Disease Control less able to cope with the epidemics. Basic research, as I have written before, is taking devastating hits — starting with NIH but including DARPA and every other area done primarily by the federal government. Some of the damage will never be repaired. And the nation’s economy will grow more slowly, adding to our deficits and debt.
I was amused this week to see George F. Will’s column, headlined in the online edition, “The Sequester: The Hammer Republicans Hold.” Will wrote approvingly, “All House Republicans should understand that the victory won in the summer of 2011 — the sequester, achieved by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — still torments Democrats.” But just a few weeks ago, Will had written a column titled “The Sequester’s a Public Health Hazard.” In it he said, “NIH scientists seek intensely practical, meaning preventive and therapeutic, things that can save society more than any sequester can.” Will is smart enough to hold these two views simultaneously; he is much smarter than the House Republicans who laud the sequester without a second’s concern about health research, damage to defense infrastructure, or a decline in port inspections and border patrols.
The denigration of public employees — typified by Rep. Darrell Issa’s vitriol directed at the IRS and Rep. Randy Neugebauer’s verbal assault on a park ranger for her work (without pay) at the World War II Memorial, which was shut down because of Neugebauer and his colleagues — represents a phenomenon that is not new but is really awful: the radicalization of so many lawmakers who don’t want limited, but good, government but instead want to blow the whole thing up. They may know not what they do, but sadly, they have the weapons to do it.
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The Democratic National Committee issued a formal apology to Bernie Sanders today, after leaked emails showed staffers trying to sabotage his presidential bid. "On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email," DNC officials said in the statement. "These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not—and will not—tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates."
The chairman of the DCCC said Debbie Wasserman Schultz won't be getting financial help from the organization this year, even as she faces a well-funded primary challenger. "Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) said the committee’s resources will be spent helping Democrats in tough races rather than those in seats that are strongholds for the party." Executive Director Kelly Ward added, “We never spend money in safe seats."
Debbie Wasserman Schultz has given up her last remaining duty at this week's convention. Now, she's told her hometown newspaper, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, that she will not gavel in the convention today. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake will do the honors instead. "I have decided that in the interest of making sure that we can start the Democratic convention on a high note that I am not going to gavel in the convention," Wasserman Schultz said.
Perhaps this talk of unity has been overstated. Addressing a room full of his supporters today, Bernie Sanders heard "sustained boos" when he said he said it was essential that we elect Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.
The FBI this morning issued a statement saying it is "investigating a cyber intrusion involving the DNC," adding that "a compromise of this nature is something we take very seriously." Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's campaign is suggesting that the hack "was committed by Russia to benefit Donald Trump."