Once again, it is federal employees who could take a hit because Uncle Sam can’t get his budget act together.
Temporary funding for the Department of Homeland Security expires Friday. If Congress and President Obama can’t agree on an appropriations bill by then, it will drape the agency in confusion.
But it won’t shut down, as DHS says, because about 85 percent of its employees would stay on the job.
What would shut down is the pay for all DHS staffers — more than 200,000 of them.
Those who remain on the job would get paid eventually, but who knows when? The 15 percent facing furlough might get paid, but they can’t take “might” to the bank.
This uncertainty hurts morale and can put federal families in financial jeopardy.
This is no way to run a government, particularly an agency that is on the front line against terrorism and drug dealing.
But the Republican insistence that DHS funding legislation include rejection of Obama’s executive actions on immigration have led to a congressional impasse. If the deadlock continues, members of Congress will still get full pay while not fully doing their jobs, yet DHS workers won’t get paid even as they continue to work.
“It’s hard to fathom that in the United States, an employer would stop paying someone and require them to continue working because the board of directors had an issue with the company president,” said Youssef Fawaz, a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) import specialist and a vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter in Detroit. “This would be illegal if it happened in the private sector. It’s a sort of indentured servitude.”
Fawaz and his colleagues want no rerun of the 16-day partial government shutdown in October 2013.
“That situation was very stressful for my family due to the fact that both my husband and I are federal employees,” said Kimberly Kraynak-Lambert, a Transportation Security Administration staffer and president of an American Federation of Government Employees local in Pittsburgh. “So for our Congress to play with our livelihood is completely disrespectful and unacceptable.”
The anxiety is no good for employees.
Even “the prospect of a shutdown has a significant effect on the morale of our workforce,” Deputy DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview. The fear of not being compensated or having pay delayed “devalues in their mind the importance of the work they do for our nation,” he added.
Yet Mayorkas says falling employee morale, in a department that already scores poorly, does not lead to declining service or productivity.
“Our people in the Department of Homeland Security are extraordinarily dedicated to their mission and they will accomplish their mission regardless of the budget decisions that are made,” he said. “They will . . . suffer financially, but their dedication is unwavering.”
The Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund has had “dozens of calls from worried employees,” said Executive Director Steve Bauer.
There’s no news from Capitol Hill to comfort them.
On Monday, the Senate plans to again take up House-approved legislation that would fund the department, but with provisions that would reverse Obama’s immigration actions. Democrats again will block that move and call on the Senate to vote on a clean bill without the poison-pill amendments.
It seems that a simple solution would be to vote on the DHS budget and the immigration issues separately. But that’s too easy. Why do what makes sense when Congress can make it difficult?
Meanwhile, DHS programs stand to suffer even if the majority of its people continue to work.
“The bulk of DHS management and headquarters administrative support activities would cease, including much of the homeland security infrastructure that was built following the 9/11 terrorist attacks to improve command, control and coordination of front-line activities,” said Marsha Catron, a DHS spokeswoman.
Among the programs that would stop are law enforcement training, grants for state and local disaster and anti-terrorism projects, and electronic employment-eligibility verification.
Almost all Federal Emergency Management Agency staffers would be sent home if the 2013 practice holds. “The current situation is a showstopper for our grant program,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said. New hires across the department would have to wait “as we work to secure the border, screen millions of passengers every day and prepare for an upcoming presidential election,” Catron said. CBP has placed several technology upgrades on hold.
“Time is running out,” CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said in a statement. “Congress should pass a clean, full-year appropriations bill. The stakes are simply too high when it comes to ensuring secure and efficient border operations.”
The stakes are too high for all of DHS and its staffers for Republicans to treat them like poker chips.
“Federal employees have taken the brunt of this power struggle between Congress and President Obama,” said Kraynak-Lambert. “Instead of federal employees feeling like their work is vital and valued, we continue to feel like a pawn in this political game.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.