EVERYBODY HATES the Internal Revenue Service, right? Well, yes and no. Americans love to gripe about the agency that collects their income taxes each year, but they also depend on it to do the job fairly and efficiently — especially the part that involves sending out refunds. And so, for all its rhetoric about the burden of federal taxes, the Trump administration has creatively interpreted a legal exception to the ongoing partial shutdown so as to order 40,000 IRS workers back to their offices in preparation for tax season. Their paychecks will arrive only when this shutdown ends, whenever that might be.
There’s a lesson here, beyond the obvious political one that presidents have many ways to soften the impact of shutdowns on the public, thereby limiting the damage to their own popularity. The bigger lesson is this: We need government.
The people who make sure tax refunds go out. The Agriculture Department employees who process loans, also ordered back on the job this week. The 8,000 furloughed diplomats who were recalled Thursday. The National Park Service personnel who are, at present, maintaining these key public assets. These much-maligned public workers perform tasks that the people, through their elected representatives, have deemed necessary to the common good. Some in Trump World may see the current furlough of more than 300,000 workers as an opportunity to prove a point about the alleged superfluousness of much of the federal government. Yet the selective reinstatement of the IRS workers and others tends to prove the opposite point.
Certainly no one could argue that the Coast Guard is “nonessential,” which is why these 42,000 brave men and women have become the first military branch ever asked to serve without pay, due to the quirk that they are part of the unfunded Department of Homeland Security. The same goes for the hard-pressed airport screeners of the Transportation Security Administration. The demoralizing experience of being told to work without pay, for almost a month so far, can only cause many of these key security personnel to reconsider their commitments to government service. Others will be deterred from joining in the first place. Yes, employees will get back pay. But how does the federal government get back its reputation as a stable and, indeed, rational employer?
Of course there’s waste and incompetence in the federal government, as we have pointed out on numerous occasions and in numerous contexts. A surefire way to get more waste and incompetence, however, is to demonstrate to America’s best and brightest that they would be foolish to work for the government. Even if the shutdown were to end tomorrow — as, alas, it appears unlikely to do — the message of contempt it sends to federal workers, and the negative impact it may have on recruitment, could take years to reverse.