Ross was also asked about a government contractor who said the shutdown was “damaging to the brand of our country,” a comment Ross dismissed as “hyperbole."
"We've had shutdowns before, albeit for not such a long period as we've been thus far,” Ross continued. “Put it in perspective: You're talking about 800,000 workers. And while I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases, 800,000 workers — if they never got their pay, which is not the case, they will eventually get it — but if they never got it, you're talking about a third of a percent on our GDP. So it's not like it's a gigantic number overall."
Not a gigantic number. Considered through the lens of the U.S. economy, that pause in pay would only account for 33 out of every 10,000 dollars produced in the United States. And it only affects 800,000 people, only about 1 out of every 200 people employed in the United States, and only a bit over one-fourth of the entire federal workforce. Not gigantic at all!
Certainly not as central to the economy as coal miners, whose importance Ross highlighted in an op-ed that ran in a Kentucky newspaper last November.
"On inauguration day, President Donald J. Trump promised America that ‘the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,’ " Ross wrote. “In few areas was that promise better fulfilled than for American coal miners.”
“We at the U.S. Department of Commerce are working hard to help revitalize coal country and assist the president as he makes good on his promise to bring back jobs and hope to these forgotten Americans,” the essay reads. It concludes, “As the president promised during his inaugural address, all of America will thrive and prosper. That includes our forgotten coal communities.”
There are 54,000 people who work in coal mining in the United States. In that essay, in fact, Ross bragged about saving a grand total of about 3,000 coal jobs.
The gulf between Ross’s dismissal of 800,000 government employees and his celebration of 3,000 coal industry workers is entirely political, a bit of trickle-down from his boss.
As Ross’s paean to the industry reminds us, President Trump made the coal industry a central part of his campaign. This wasn’t because so many coal miners were going to come out and vote. It was in part because coal country overlaps with Ohio and Pennsylvania, two important states in presidential elections. But moreover, it was about reinforcing his main campaign theme: Restoring the America that was, a postwar America in which white men went to work at manufacturing jobs and in steel mills and coal mines and earned good salaries. Coal miners were a nostalgia play.
Government workers weren’t. As many mostly Republican candidates have, Trump dismissed government regulations and taxes as burdensome, the implication being that government was too big and too greedy. When he faced criticism in 2017 for not filling vacant positions in his administration, Trump argued that it was part of his effort to reduce the size of government.
Trump has also repeatedly waved away concerns about the federal workers affected by the shutdown. At times, that’s taken the form of denial, with Trump insisting that furloughed workers or those working without pay support the shutdown. At other times he’s dismissed the workers indirectly, claiming (without evidence) that most of those affected are Democrats but insisting he doesn’t care about that — an insistence undermined by his raising it. (As it turns out, House districts with more federal employees backed Trump more heavily in the 2016 election.)
Federal workers do not inspire the same sympathy with Trump — or, one assumes, his base — as coal miners or steelworkers. (There are, if you’re curious, about 140,000 people who work in steel manufacturing in the United States — about one-sixth of a non-gigantic number.) Speaking in broad generalities, federal workers are heavily unionized, live in the greater D.C. area and are more likely to be nonwhite than someone who works in the private sector. Those are not characteristics that are going to catch Trump’s attention.
Ross’s characterization of the delayed pay for hundreds of thousands of people who work for his boss was to wave it off: a blip, a rounding error. It is certain that if the situation focused on ensuring the pay of coal miners or workers at an auto plant in northeast Ohio, Ross would have insisted on the immediate need for those workers to have access to every resource at the government’s disposal.
But then, Trump wouldn’t have taken an action that caused them not to get paid in the first place.