People in El Paso gather Monday for a march at the same time that President Trump held a rally. Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

If it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, folks like Johnny Zuagar must be feeling pretty muscular.

The 39-year-old retail sales analyst at the Census Bureau’s headquarters in Suitland, Md., surfaced from the recent 35-day partial government shutdown feeling energized to take on whatever President Trump throws at the federal workforce.

That includes the possibility of another shutdown if a tentative congressional budget deal falls through.

Zuagar, speaking as president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) council representing Census workers nationally, said of the last shutdown the “financial aspect was very difficult.” Married and the father of three young boys, he delayed payments for his kids’ day care, his home’s mortgage and utilities.

Yet, he now can say “I’m stronger. … I survived 35 days.”

Zuagar is among those attending the union’s annual legislative conference on Capitol Hill this week. They were fired up by AFGE President J. David Cox Sr., who told those gathered at the Hyatt Regency: “We won in the court of public opinion. And, sisters and brothers, we didn’t just win. We kicked their asses.”

They also took tough blows. Zuagar and 800,000 federal colleagues either were locked out of work or pushed into involuntary servitude, forced to work temporarily without pay. They have received back wages now or should soon.

Zuagar and others are ready to carry on the fight. The government could shut again after Friday if no agreement is finalized. “I’m prepared to be back out there (demonstrating) on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, until it opens back up,” he said in a quiet service hallway. “Mentally, emotionally, everything, I'm pretty strong. You know the people that we have working here are pretty strong people. You know, they'll get through it.”

Zuagar doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the last shutdown hit more than his wallet.

“As a man, not as an employee, there are certain things I have pride in,” he said. “People want to talk about the financial hit … but what about the dignity of being able to work? And somebody took that away from you and that person that took it away from you is supposed to be the person that’s supposed to be taking care of you as a leader,” referring to the president.

There’s also the issue of confidence in the government — confidence undermined by the last shutdown and the continuing possibility of another one this week.

“We used to offer stability,” Zuagar continued about federal employment. But under Trump’s model, “every year we can be shut” for some presidential pique.

Whether there is another shutdown or the emergence of federal sanity is uncertain. A tentative bipartisan, bicameral congressional agreement to avoid another closure was reached Monday evening. It would keep all government agencies funded through September and provide $1.375 billion for 55 miles of new border barriers, far less than Trump’s $5.7 billion demand for more than 200 miles of walls. It was that demand that led to the longest federal shutdown.

Trump dumped on the deal, without declaring it dead. “I’m not happy,” he said Tuesday, adding “It’s not going to do the trick.” But he said he could make additions and avoid another shutdown.

Shamefully and incongruously for the president of the United States, Trump again expressed pride in shutting the government he heads in the name of his pet project, the border wall: “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished because people learned during that shutdown all about the problems coming in from the southern border.”

Yet, “I don’t think you’re going to see a shutdown” at the end of this week, he said.

Trump could allow the agreement to become law and attempt to build the wall he wants through executive action, a move potentially fraught with political and legal traps.

More reasonable heads are more hopeful, but they know this woeful drama is not over.

“I am cautiously optimistic that this bipartisan agreement will enhance border security and allow us to avoid another Trump Shutdown. The wild card remains to be President Trump and if he will take yes for an answer,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said by email. “I think the President learned after his 35-day shutdown that there is no such thing as ‘a good government shutdown,’ and I don’t think there is an appetite in Congress to repeat that. 800,000 federal employees and an equal number of contract employees deserve no less than a government that keeps faith with them.”

That faith has been badly injured, as reflected in worker reaction to the tentative agreement.

Zuagar takes a believe it when you see it approach.

“He’s unpredictable,” he said of Trump. “I’m waiting to see. That’s all I can say.”

Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, is pleased with the tentative agreement, but he’s proceeding as if there were none.

“There is too much that could go wrong to consider this a done deal,” he said. “We are preparing for another shutdown. Until I see this spending bill signed by the president, we will continue those preparations.

“Federal workers have been burned too badly to proceed any differently.”

Read more:

Shutdown leads to continuing psychological issues for federal employees

Lasting damage remains from Trump’s shutdown folly

Unpaid federal employees recalled so they can pay federal contractors

IRS workers beckoned to involuntary servitude

Feds’ twilight zone — working without pay