The government shutdown is hitting close to home—800,000 government workers’ families are going without pay, many near my hometown in the D.C. area. Although they will eventually receive back pay, many families are limping along without a paycheck. Less important in human terms but more important in terms of cuteness, we can no longer watch pandas cuddle on the National Zoo’s Panda Cam. But there’s a bigger hidden cost that we would regret in 50 years: The shutdown could lead even more of the “best and brightest” young people to reject public service.
Lucky college seniors are choosing between job offers right now. How are they deciding? Key factors include income, prestige, impact, quality of bosses, job security and flexibility. Clearly the private sector can seem more appealing on the surface. Trinity senior Patrick Oathout, a newly minted Truman Scholar, doesn’t think the shutdown will disincentivize government service. But he does name “three things that turn people off about public service: low benefits [i.e. income], high risk [like losing an election] and public scrutiny.” Despite these downsides, the federal government can still attract top talent because officials make a tangible impact on Americans’ lives, enjoy a certain kind of prestige, often work saner hours and have greater job security. The shutdown and other congressional failures of leadership threaten the future of public service by further diminishing its prestige, eroding its job security, endangering the critical mass of talent that we need for an effective bureaucracy and reminding us that Congress does government about as well as Miley Cyrus does demolition.
First, the shutdown represents the latest episode in what 28-year State Department veteran and New York Times op-ed contributor Stephen Kelly calls a “war on government.” Politicians and pundits love to heap derision on civil servants. They decry every misstep from paying too much for muffins to following inaccurate talking points on a news show. Of course, government waste and official misdeeds must be reported and rectified. But the unrelenting criticism of public employees aims to make government service a stain rather than an honor. Kelly says that for top civil servants, “the example coming from Washington is that not only will we not pay you as much (as private sector workers), but we will make you feel like a worthless hog suckling on the government teat.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be painted as a worthless hog just for doing my job—all the while knowing that I could make $50,000 more at a private company. The opportunity costs go beyond the people who decide to never join the government. Talented people will move on more rapidly. I’m confident that the loss of institutional knowledge and long-term expertise would cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Now that’s what I call government inefficiency!
Second, the shutdown and wanton budget cuts like the ongoing sequester chip away at the job security traditionally associated with government work. The sequester prompted cuts across many departments. The Energy Department had to fire 250 workers at Hanford Nuclear Reservation—people who likely had higher education and specialized skills. Federal public defenders have to take up to 15 unpaid furlough days, denting their paychecks even further. Education Department funding for Indian reservations has been slashed; a reservation in Montana lost nearly a million dollars to educate its children. And now the shutdown has kept home 800,000 “nonessential” employees. Congress voted last week to give them back pay for their shutdown furlough days—but it will not let them work, even if they want to! These layoffs and unpaid furloughs make government service much less secure and even less financially appealing.
Third, we will lose the critical mass of talented civil servants who are the lifeblood of our government. Public service will always attract excellent executives because people see the opportunity to make an impact. Accomplished people in every industry will always answer the call when a newly elected president asks them to serve as Secretary of State or Environmental Protection Agency Administrator. Even with diminished prestige, the commander in chief can attract some of the best and brightest.
But a former Defense Department official points out that the civil service needs more than a few talented people at the top. These mid-level professionals are deemed “nonessential,” yet it’s essential that the government have enough talented people to fill tens of thousands of career positions and do the nitty-gritty work that political appointees like Cabinet members don’t do. The Defense official bluntly worries that “we may very well see a reduction—but not the complete loss—of talented people, if this idiocy continues.” High-profile politicians like John Kerry will keep filling the high-profile positions, but we would lose the critical mass of excellent career employees like Stephen Kelly. And that would make our diplomacy less effective, our civil rights enforcement weaker and our responses to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Colorado’s wildfires even more inadequate.
Lastly, who wants to work for a boss as incompetent as today’s Congress? Recent history is littered with examples of bad bosses and poor management in the private sector, from Enron to Lehman Brothers. But if you find a bad boss in the private sector, you can start sending emails to other companies. You can escape a dysfunctional boss, but you can’t escape a dysfunctional Congress.
That dysfunctional Congress is, unfortunately, the only actor who can end the shutdown. And I hope they will do that soon. House Republicans must stop holding the bureaucracy hostage in their crusade against the Affordable Care Act. They have already tried and failed to repeal Obamacare over 40 times. They need to know that their choice to force a shutdown affects more than the Panda Cam. It affects thousands of American families. And it risks immense harm to our national government’s effectiveness over the next 50 years by giving my generation’s talented professionals even more reasons to say “thanks, but no thanks” to public service.
Andrew Kragie is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Tuesday.