The price of furlough


The big questions of the government shutdown, how it happened, who’s to blame and what will resolve it all pale in comparison for the nearly 1 million government workers furloughed, with the far more vital question of when will it be over. In the Greater Washington D.C. area, federal workers and those involved in federal work such as contractors and providers of other services, have seen and felt the effects almost immediately as the majority ceased getting paid and are even forbidden to work for free. The harm to their work and personal lives grows with every day the government remains shut down.

“I am definitely being more careful in how I spend my money,” said one young Department of Labor employee. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of her job, she explained how there is a lot of misunderstandings about what a furlough means. “We’re just in limbo,” she said.

“I’m really lucky I could afford to put money aside, and I have friends and family who have offered to help,” said a Health and Human Services employee.

Many younger federal employees live with only a thin margin of savings between paychecks due to federal budget freezes, high cost of living and other economic factors. Although a bill to provide back pay to federal workers has passed in the House of Representatives, it doesn’t help people now.

A staffing agency employee, whose company provides contract workers to a host of government departments along with commercial interests, said that it’s likely that won’t help his company’s staffers at all, even if it passes.

“The bill doesn’t provide for nonfederal employees,” he said. “It’s a sticky situation because we’re trying to get our people paid and our company paid.”

In response to the shutdown, Jewish community groups have joined all sorts of businesses and organizations in offering their support for furloughed workers with free and discounted products and services and general moral support.

“We’re part of the community and want to show our support,” said Tracey Dorfmann, chief programming officer at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

On different days, the JCCGW has so far offered free bagel breakfasts and free fitness passes to not only members, but any federal employee who would like to use the gym facilities. They have even provided extra fitness classes, some of which are actually taught by federal employees.

“It gives them a chance to make some extra money during this time,” Dorfmann said.

The JCCGW is not alone in looking for ways to reach out to Jewish and other furloughed workers. The JCC of Northern Virginia is similarly offering furloughed workers, Jewish and otherwise, access to its gym. Sixth & I Historic Synagogue has been hosting furloughed workers, providing free food, coffee and even games. Other synagogues have hosted lunches and special classes about the shutdown, and otherwise indicated they stand with community members during this trying time.

The shutdown story is complicated, in part because the story keeps changing, but the essence of the conflict comes out of a desire by a right-wing faction of the Republican caucus in Congress to use the harm done to the country by a shutdown to force Democratic legislators and President Obama to accede to their policy demands.

At first, the demands related to the Affordable Care Act. Passed three years ago, the law has survived the scrutiny of the Supreme Court and the 2012 election that in many ways acted as a referendum for the law. In addition, there have been more than 40 failed attempts by House Republicans to repeal the law since they became the majority after the 2010 elections and tea party hardliners gained influence. Nonetheless as the previous continuing resolution to keep the government funded, which had passed in March, neared its end, Republicans in the House of Representatives persisted in passing new bills that included attempts to delay, defund or otherwise stop the Affordable Care Act. With a majority in the Senate, Democrats would repeatedly strip out those provisions and send the bill back to the House. The attempt to use a government shutdown as leverage was part of a failed, last-ditch effort to stop the state health care exchanges from opening, which, since they rely on unrelated mandatory spending, they ironically did the same day the government shut down.

After almost two weeks of shutdown and deep and often public rifts in the Republican caucus on tactics and goals, extreme right-wing members have prevented Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) from bringing a continuing resolution that did not affect the ACA up for a vote, promising a revolt since although such a measure might conceivably pass, it would require Democratic votes.

At this point, the story starts to get confusing. Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama have made it clear that they will not treat funding the government as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Republicans, nor will they dismantle Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Advocates for vulnerable groups like seniors who rely on federally funded services to support themselves are doing what they can, but outside the Capitol, the shutdown prevents those whose job is to help from doing so.

“In my mind they’re all essential,” said Mark Olshan, associate executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International (BBI).

BBI provides not only food, but legal help related to housing and all kinds of other services for seniors living independently. But those services, often dependent on federal funding, are now on hold with only those deemed essential by the federal government functioning.

“Meals on wheels and other services are facing funding shortfalls,” said Rachel Goldberg, director of senior advocacy at BBI.

Even when the government reopens, the effects will linger and the longer it lasts the worse it will be, which is one reason that BBI lobbies for not only reopening the government but ending the sequester program that has been limiting what they can do even before the shutdown.

“There’s nothing we can do to fix meals people have missed,” Goldberg said.

A lot of arguments about what, if any, resolution is possible rely on public opinion polls. And while the polls continue to show that everyone in the federal government is being blamed at least somewhat, generally speaking Republicans in Congress are taking the biggest hit. In a Washington Post-ABC poll released Monday, 70 percent of Americans disapprove of their actions, 51 percent strongly, against only 24 percent approving. Congressional Democrats have a 35-61 disapproval rating and President Obama’s approval has actually gone up with 45 percent approving compared with 41 percent last week. Unsurprisingly, the divide has a very partisan look, but nearly three-quarters of self-described moderates expressed more disapproval with Republican handling of the shutdown.

An additional complication is a threat to not raise the debt ceiling that allows the Treasury to keep borrowing to pay for what Congress previously allocated. Many economists have explained how breaching that ceiling could plunge the country and a great deal of the world economy into a new depression but some legislators deny that it will have any real impact.

“We are planning for the worst,” the staffing agency worker said.

“Message unity” in a political party is hard to maintain and gaffes have inevitably been made on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Reid’s unfortunately phrased comment that he would not fund NIH cancer research to the exclusion of other needed funding was used to portray him as uncaring about sick children. Meanwhile, when asked what the shutdown was about and what it would take to end it in an interview with the Washington Examiner, Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) said “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

So far, at least, Democrats are holding fast to their principle of not giving in to the unilateral demands right-wing Republicans insist they must get. The argument by Democrats, and even some Republican lawmakers who are upset about the position they are in, is that for the president and Democratic majority in the Senate to give in would be to legitimize it as a tactic for any group to bypass the constitutional system of laws and validate nullification in ways not seen since the Civil War ended.

The world and especially the markets are watching closely to see what happens next. Derision and amusement in some quarters have given way to genuine concern that the U.S. economy, arguably the bedrock of geopolitical stability, could implode.

“It’s all really reinforced my views about who I support,” the HHS employee said, explaining that she had always leaned Democrat anyway but the derogatory comments and dismissive actions of Republican lawmakers have made her more certain about her political opinions. “The reason we went into government was because we wanted to serve the public, and they’re just politically posturing.”

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