The Shutdown And Federal Workers

7 min readJan 22, 2019


While the New York Times and others are pretending that Donald Trump is really offering a compromise to end the government shutdown that is impacting millions of hard-working Americans, as far as the plutocrats behind the Republican party and Trump are concerned, the government is functioning as desired.

Special interests are getting the necessary government departments opened, staffed by unpaid workers, to keep their business interests functioning smoothly. More important than the simple flattery of Trump’s insatiable ego with their supplications is what those interests might be promising Trump in return for his and his agencies’ help.

Jeff Stein and the Washington Post have highlighted some of what the Trump administration has deemed to be the “essential services” needed to protect public safety and therefore must remain open. The Agriculture Department has forced 2,500 employees back to work to process paperwork and loans for the powerful farm lobby. That effort is on top of the decision of the USDA to keep buying commodities as part of the bailout of the agriculture and livestock industries that is driven by Trump’s backfiring tariffs and the Agriculture Department’s continuing to publish livestock pricing data.

Over at the Treasury Department, Steve Mnuchin acceded to the powerful Mortgage Bankers Association demand to bring back unpaid employees to restart the IRS’ income verification service necessary to complete mortgage processing. In addition, thousands more unpaid IRS employees are being brought back to work to process tax refunds. If you think that the administration is worried about taxpayer backlash over not receiving refunds of a few hundred or thousand dollars in a timely manner, I have a Trump University degree to sell you. This is designed to get those big-money refunds out to the 1% and corporations. Treasury is also being lobbied hard by the alcohol industry to re-open portions of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Office with unpaid workers in order to approve new products. Elsewhere, the oil and gas industry got the Interior Department to bring back unpaid employees in order to prepare the sale of offshore drilling rights.

The political nature of some of these decisions is illustrated by what the administration is keeping open at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The entire Alaskan congressional delegation, including the important swing vote of Lisa Murkowski, lobbied the NOAA to make sure the state’s cod and pollack industry would not be effected by ensuring that inspections would continue so that the fleet would still be able to sail for the 19-day season in early January. On the other hand, the fishing fleet in Massachusetts, a solidly blue state, has not been able to get those NOAA inspections, threatening its ability to actually meet their scallop quota by the time that season ends.

Of course, the ability of well-connected lobbies to get exactly what they want from federal agencies is par for the course in the Trump administration. The administration has taken a similar approach regarding what companies get relief from Trump’s tariffs. That could also be said of the individuals and countries who manage to get relief from sanctions. There is clearly a political aspect to all these decisions, although often it is not difficult to discern what benefit Trump or his administration receives from these decisions. Certainly foreign countries and leaders believe that this is a quid-pro-quo administration and the administration seemingly acts no differently with domestic lobbyists.

This is exactly the government that Trump and many in the Republican party want. As I’ve written before, the shutdown is part of the libertarian dream of the destruction of the administrative state. For Trump, a stripped down administrative state not only restricts ongoing oversight of his administration but also puts more power in his hands and enhances the opportunities for corruption as the number of people actually involved in any specific decision is limited. And for the plutocratic donors behind the Republican party, the shutdown effectively neuters much of the regulatory state that oversees their operations. Certainly, the majority of Republicans in Congress are not only comfortable with but complicit in this state of affairs. Among that group, there is little energy or appetite for actually taking steps to re-open the government, while, at the same time, they willing and able to shovel millions of dollars to a Russian oligarch who is the creditor of millions to Paul Manafort.

Much of the traditional media still lives in this fantasy world that Trump will actually be willing to compromise to end the shutdown. That is illustrated by the Times’ ludicrous assertion that his latest offer was actually “an appeal to the center”. As I’ve also written, the shutdown will not end with a negotiation and compromise, primarily because Trump and the majority of Republicans are quite content with a government that purely functions to service the capitalist class. As Trump has openly stated, he could keep the government shut down for years. Apparently, the media is insisting that this is one of those Trump statements that we should take figuratively but not literally.

Rather than doing their job, in fact, Republicans are now wishing for a unique solution to end the shutdown. Many of them are privately hoping that government workers essentially strike and walk off the job, forcing some kind of end to the shutdown. As Robert Costa reports, “Couple senior Republican lawmakers tell me the only way this breaks open is if TSA employees stay home and Americans get furious about their flights”.

Some in the media are also picking up on this idea. Barbara Ehrenreich and Gary Stevenson discussed this option in a recent op-ed piece as did the usual reliable David Leonhart in a rather bizarre piece of his own. Ehrenreich and Stevenson advocate for a TSA strike, writing “The moral foundation for a strike is unquestionably firm. The federal government has broken its contract with its employees — locking some of them out of their workplaces and expecting others to work for the mere promise of eventual pay. An even more profound principle is also at stake, namely the ban on slavery and involuntary servitude embodied in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution”. Leonhart envisions an even broader one-day action, positing “With even a minority of them participating, [a nationwide one-day strike by federal workers] would create huge logistical problems at airports and elsewhere. Americans who support the workers could join them on the picket lines. The day after the strike, the federal workers could return to their jobs, as a sign of their commitment. The threat of future strikes would be clear. The human effects of the shutdown would no longer be so easy for the country to ignore”.

As opposed to Leonhart, who strangely treats the failure to strike as a weakness of the progressive project and blithely ignores the history of the last forty years, Ehrenreich and Stevenson at least recognize the dangers of a, by definition, illegal federal strike. The legacy of Reagan’s destruction of PATCO still looms large. The courts, filled with Federalist Society ideologues, will provide no refuge and are actively engaged in weakening unions as the recent Janus decision illustrated. While it may be anticipated that the public would initially support a strike by federal workers, any prolonged disruption would likely change that calculus.

Moreover, Trump and the Republicans would immediately seize upon any strike as an opportunity to change the focus from the wall to union-bashing. With GOP support, the Trump administration could challenge the striking workers access right to the back-pay for the work they have already performed. Similarly, Trump would also relish the chance to finally break the public sector unions, having already taken steps to weaken them. And there is no doubt that the administration would relish the opportunity to replace these workers, perhaps with lower-paying or more ideologically aligned candidates. Yes, that would take time, but it would happen. Lastly, even without a strike, the attrition from an extended shutdown as federal workers give up and find other jobs plays into the long-time GOP goal of reducing the size of government and the destruction of the administrative state.

With the majority of Americans basically living paycheck to paycheck, it is hard to comprehend the enormous economic pressure that constantly consumes American workers. The last forty years has seen the triumph of the primacy of shareholders, the myth of the “job creators”, and the destruction of unions. In the private sector, workers are constantly cowed. Any challenge to corporate authority is met with subtle but often consequential retaliation. Discrimination in age, sex, and race is still rampant. Employees know they are disposable parts, easily replaced by workers here or overseas or automation. All this has produced optimal conditions for the capital class to steal more and more of the wealth created. Similarly, the courts are decidedly pro-business and anti-union, offering little or no protection to regular workers.

The public sector is the last bastion of union strength and worker protection. The reason federal workers still show up and do their jobs despite not getting paid are manifold. Some feel a sense of obligation and duty. Others believe they have enough in savings to hold on until they receive the back pay they are owed. Still others refuse to do something illegal and jeopardize their employment going forward. With almost every agency staffed with Trump “spies” who monitor ideological fealty to the administration, workers know that any attempt to agitate will result in retaliation.

An extended government shutdown is an attack on these last vestiges of worker protections. The size of government will be reduced either by attrition or by an illegal strike by federal workers that will result in their eventual termination. And the only obstacle to unfettered corporate power, the regulatory capabilities of the federal government, will be effectively neutered. The capital class will at last have a federal workforce that is just as cowed as its private one, and a government that is totally responsive to their wishes. And, with a media equally cowed or willfully ignorant, our country will more and more resemble the kleptocratic oligarchy run by Trump’s favorite strong leader.

Originally published at on January 22, 2019.




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