Feds lose in Congress' tug of war

Hopefully you'll be back to work when you read this column and not on furlough No. 3. The back-to-back furloughs demonstrate the low regard accorded federal employees by the current congressional leadership.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to appropriate funds for various purposes but reserves for the president the right to veto legislation. I doubt the framers of the Constitution ever envisioned that members of Congress would attempt to blackmail the president by refusing to appropriate funds to operate the government.

That's exactly what happened, and the blame lies squarely with the party in power, which has used this mechanism to try to get its way—like a spoiled child—when conventional approaches failed. To make things worse, the Republican strategy backfired because Clinton and the Democrats decided they didn't care any more about the plight of feds than the Republicans did.

When one of the federal employee unions took the government to court and challenged its right to compel "essential" employees to work but forgo pay, who do you think fought this motion in court? Justice Department lawyers (also not being paid) working at the president's behest.

I'm not going to get into the merits of whether the budget should be balanced in seven years, 10 years or some other interval of time.

I'm opposed to the notion that a good way to achieve political goals is to jerk federal employees around like dancing puppets without any thought of the consequences. Shame on the Republicans for embracing such a strategy.

Before Congress recessed for the Christmas holiday, it did display some social concern by appropriating funds for people scheduled to receive veterans benefits and welfare checks. Congress even appropriated emergency funds to keep open the office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in New York—a bill the United States agreed to pick up as part of its effort to help the Israel/PLO peace process.

What message does that send, when Congress makes provisions for the PLO but makes no effort to provide a funding line to pay feds?

If those engaged in a battle with the Clinton administration were concerned about federal employees, they could have refused to appropriate funds for the continuing operation of government and also appropriated funds to pay federal employees their salaries while they waited on the sidelines. However, because Congress chose not to do so, it is clear that it holds federal employees in contempt.

When federal employees do go back to work, what will now motivate them? A supervisor's cry that "this has to be worked on quickly because there's congressional interest" will probably result in foot dragging by employees who previously would have jumped with alacrity at such a request. Even though Congress did promise pay to all feds, such a promise (which was later honored) carried very little weight with the mortgage holder, the landlord, the car dealer, the bank, the college, etc.

Perhaps when feds return to work, they should provide promises of future work. I wonder how Congress would react to that scenario?

The shutdown spilled over into the commercial sector as well, affecting hundreds of workers near Yosemite National Park—laid off by their private employers because the park closed down, shutting off the tourism lifeblood.

These people, too, are innocent victims of the Republicans' refusal to play by the rules of the game. It doesn't matter whether Clinton or the Republicans are right; it's the tactic that's dead wrong. I don't think things will ever be the same again. Gone forever will be the dedication to service that many feds embraced.

The unsung hero in all this is Bob Dole, who called a halt to the nonsense. He had the courage of his convictions—a rare commodity these days—to defy his own party's lunatic fringe.

It may cost him in the Republican primaries, but he sure won my vote. A tip of the hat also goes to the overseas State Department employees who blew the whistle on all the expensive junkets Congress had planned while feds fumed.

The world has given feds a loud and clear message: You don't count. The only reasonable response to expect from feds is to say, well, in that case, you get what you pay for.

Can you imagine anyone graduating from college this summer wanting to go to work for the federal government? I can't. Federal employment may not have been an attractive prospect before, but now it's the pits.

The shutdown has done irreparable harm to employees' morale, and it is unclear whether it will ever recover.

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Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to Federal Computer Week. You can read Bureaucratus on FCW's Web page at "http://www.fcw.com" or send an e-mail to bureaucratus@fcw.com.

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