The Government Shutdown: The President and Congress Are Not Doing Their Jobs. Why Are They Being Paid?

The Washington Post, January 25, 2019


It is becoming more and more difficult each day for me to watch thousands of federal employees and their families line up at food banks and pantries for relief because they’ve lost their paychecks in this ridiculous government shutdown. What is more ridiculous is that those elected leaders who are failing to resolve this crisis are continuing to be paid. Maybe it’s time they, too, should suffer at least some of the same consequences so they might better understand the price being paid for political gridlock.

While I realize it is not likely the president and members of Congress would be forced to resort to a food pantry, the symbolism of having to lose their pay like others is important to our sense of fairness. And if we ever get out of this mess, Congress might want to consider ways to make sure this debacle never happens again. One way is to force the leadership of the country to think twice about shutting down the government if they and their families had to share some of the distress caused by the failure to govern.

After all, the American people elect our leaders to protect them, not to hurt them. Both the president and members of Congress are sent to Washington by voters to govern. What is clear from this continuing shutdown is they are not earning their pay.

I appreciate the fact that there are good members of both sides of the aisle who are trying to govern, to find compromise and to end this shutdown. Unfortunately, there are far too many willing to dig in and keep the government shut. The Senate just rejected both the Trump proposal and the Democratic effort to open the government. The American people are paying a terrible price for their intransigence. They ought to pay a price, as well.

The biggest problem now is that, in the absence of compromise, both the president and Congress seem to be preparing for a more prolonged shutdown. But for them, life will go on — they will return to their constituencies, to sympathize with those out of work; the president will remain in the White House tweeting away; everyone will blame the other party; and all will feel some comfort in the thought that their political base supports their side of the argument. They are all caught up in a political war waiting for the other side to surrender. But in this war, the American people themselves are the collateral damage.

Some 800,000 federal employees have lost yet another paycheck; travel will become more dangerous because of the strain on the Transportation Security Administration; food stamp relief will soon be seriously reduced; border security is in worse shape because of the shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security; food banks, food pantries and relief centers are springing up across the country to help those impacted as if we’re back in the 1930s. And yet, this is not the Great Depression; it is not even the economic crisis of 2008; this is a time of economic growth, higher wages and jobs. By all rights, this should be a time of economic prosperity, not self-inflicted economic crisis.

In a recent letter to his investors, Seth Klarman, a well-known investor known for his sober and meticulous analysis, warned that there is a growing sense that the political and social divide around the globe may end in economic calamity. “It can’t be business as usual amid constant protests, riots, shutdowns and escalating social divisions,” he wrote. He adds, too many have become complacent and assume that the good times will continue even as chaos increases. They have grown careless about risk.

Something has to change. The complacency must end. The nation cannot afford to simply wait for a major crisis or tragedy in order for their elected leaders to do the right thing.

As the old story goes, when the jackass refused to move, the farmer had to hit him across the head with a club to get his attention. Perhaps the same may be true here.

There is no justification for a shutdown of the government that threatens our people, our economy and our nation. When it happens, the president and Congress should be the first to lose their pay. Perhaps using that club might just get their attention. And maybe, just maybe, when they feel at lease some of the pain they are inflicting on others, they might begin to govern again and earn their paycheck.

Leon Panetta, the chairman of the Panetta Institute, was budget director and White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton and defense secretary and CIA director under President Barack Obama. He served eight terms in Congress as a Democratic representative from California.