Shutdown? Government still entangled in last one

This week’s Congressional Budget Office report — which compared federal and private salaries and benefits, but that’s another matter — pegged the annual government payroll cost at about $215 billion. That was for 2016.

That money buys a lot of work from more than 2 million people.

It looks like our brave politicians will somehow avert a government shutdown Saturday. Even if there is a lapse in funding, federal employees will get paid afterward. At...

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This week’s Congressional Budget Office report — which compared federal and private salaries and benefits, but that’s another matter — pegged the annual government payroll cost at about $215 billion. That was for 2016.

That money buys a lot of work from more than 2 million people.

It looks like our brave politicians will somehow avert a government shutdown Saturday. Even if there is a lapse in funding, federal employees will get paid afterward. At least they always have, even if it’s taken, well, an act of Congress.

Large numbers of federal employees continue to work even during a shutdown. They don’t get to stay at home. Air traffic controllers, border patrol agents, VA doctors and nurses, federal prison guards — anyone with a job deemed essential to public safety and health.

No normal person likes working for free. No matter how much a person loves the job and has enthusiasm for the mission, it’s against human nature to be willing to do it and not get paid. People reserve their unpaid time for being scoutmasters, church deacons or park cleaner-uppers.

In the 2013 16-day shutdown, “essential” people did get their pay afterward. But, as Leviticus 19:13 admonishes, “You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” Federal Judge Patricia Elaine Campbell-Smith agreed. In February she awarded liquidated damages in the form of partial back pay to some 25,000 feds who did work through the 2013 shutdown. The plaintiff’s sued under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act.

According to one of the attorneys for the employees, Heidi Burakiewicz of Mehri and Skalet, how much each employee gets is under negotiations with the Justice Department now. Who knows how long that will take. But by the time the checks get cut it’ll be four years since the shutdown.

I can hear the scribes of Leviticus tsk-tsking.

Burakiewicz tells me in our latest interview she’d take on a four-year case again. “I think it is outrageous the government is treating its federal workforce like this,” she said.

The general public may not realize the extent to which federal employees loathe the possibility of a shutdown — and the furloughs or work-until-further-notice conditions that accompany it. For those who don’t work, it’s an enforced absence. They’re not allowed on the premises of their agencies, and no teleworking. Remember the baskets of collected Blackberrys?

A retired federal executive was in our studios a couple of months back. The former procurement executive was practically apoplectic over the state of the federal budget process. “Do your job! Just do your job!” It blurted out as an exclamation accompanied by flecks of spittle. Stepping back a half pace, I said, “Yeah, yeah!”

Thinking back on the exchange, I realize how right she was. Congress sternly tells everyone else under its purview to do their jobs. Members should do theirs.

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