Federal employees have a strong sense of mission.
But instead of taking pride in mission accomplished, the operative description for many workers is mission stymied.
Thursday is Day Three of a government shutdown that is forcing hundreds of thousands of federal employees to do no work, and get no pay. A congressional budget impasse leaves them idle. The services they provide the nation either won’t get done or will be delayed.
That includes the work of four of the 16 winners of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, who will be honored at a black-tie dinner Thursday evening. Better known as the Sammies, the awards, sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service, annually spotlight the incredible work of federal employees. (The Partnership has as a content sharing relationship with The Washington Post).
The exceptional work of these four demonstrates the insanity of this shutdown:
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Kevin T. Geiss, deputy assistant secretary for the Air Force, saved the service $1 billion last year by leading efforts to reduce fuel and energy consumption.
Orice Williams Brown, a managing director at the Government Accountability Office, provided straight-forward analysis to Congress on a variety of politically charged issues related to the laws flowing from the 2008 financial crisis.
Daniel Madrzykowski, a fire-protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has researched innovative ways to fight fires.
David Lavery, a NASA program executive, led the Mars rover mission project that is exploring the planet’s geology and climate.
My colleague Robert McCartney weighs in on this in his column in the Metro section. These folks are getting awards, but they would quickly tell you how their success is related to many talented civil servants who feel pride in their missions.
When the furloughed Stephanie Graf is allowed to work in her Labor Department office, her mission is to help get emergency grants to people in need.
“We provide grants for people like me. I’m dislocated now,” she said before leaving the office Monday.
She’s also concerned about the low-wage housekeeping contractor employees in the Labor Department building who will be affected by the shutdown.
Graf said she supports her mother, and assists her son in college and her daughter who is a single parent.
“I think there is a general concern,” she said, “about what is going to happen next.”
Judith Weinberg works for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on construction safety problems. At age 67 and after 27 years of federal service, she’s seen a lot, but nothing quite like this shutdown.
Weinberg was around for the last shutdown, in 1995-96. “It just feels different this time,” she said. Previously, “there was an effort to work out an agreement.” But today, “there just seems to be a total logjam.”
Her work on a new safety standard for silica dust, which can be found in glass manufacturing, foundries and sand blasting, will be sidetracked because of the shutdown.
“People are dying from silica,” Weinberg said.
Niels Thiess is a furloughed IT specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
He’s also a Republican, but “I’m hoping the Democrats hold firm,” he said about the budget dispute. Thiess rejects the Republicans’ attempt to link a budget-funding measure to a delay or a defunding of the Affordable Care Act.
Helping people is FEMA’s mission, “so I believe in that personally also,” he said. That means he favors helping those without health insurance get it, as the Affordable Care Act does.
Thiess is also a 27-year employee who was around for the last shutdown. Like Weinberg, he sees less room for compromise now.
“The tea party is driving a non-compromising position,” he said.
Rachel Riley, a 12-year employee of the Housing and Urban Development Department, works to reduce lead-paint hazards for low-income children. But the grants to cities and states that she facilitates will slow because of the shutout of Riley and other workers.
“These children are going to continue to live in houses with lead,” Riley said. Lead abatement work will continue, she explained, but without federal support to local officials.
“My heart is broken, absolutely broken,” Riley said.
So is the government.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.