Shutdown Notebook: Decline and Fall

From the late 1800s, the library at the State Department, during the era when the United States was building up the capacity of its diplomatic corps. That human and institutional capital is now being run down, a furloughed Foreign Service officer argues. (Library of Congress)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A current member of the U.S. Foreign Service, originally from a non-coastal ag-economy town like those that my wife, Deb, and I have been writing about, describes how the abstraction of “the shutdown” feels to him and his colleagues.

I could set it up further or highlight its implications, but instead I’ll just say, Please read and think about his account:

For the first time in my 20+ years as a federal employee, I won’t get paid this week.  That hurts, but fortunately my wife—also a federal employee—gets paid out a different account, one that still has a “residual balance.”

But probably not for much longer.  At that point, we’ll live off our savings while Congress and the White House continue to beat their chests and scream at one another, oblivious to the long-term damage they’re doing to our national interests.  

My wife and I have savings to cover the gap, but many of our colleagues aren’t so lucky.  The State Department stopped paying salaries this week for nearly half the members of the Foreign Service, many of whom struggle to get by given the high costs of housing and child care in the Washington, DC area.  I don’t know how many civil servants also won’t get paid, but I assume it’s a lot.  Many of them work in low-paid clerical jobs in the DC area, and they can scarcely afford missing a single paycheck.

The so-called Locally Employed Staff, aka the non-Americans who work at U.S. Embassies around the world, are still getting paid, but no one knows for how much longer.  Many of these local staff endure harassment and worse because they work for the U.S. government.  [JF note: Yes, I have seen this around the world, and know how heavily U.S. embassies and U.S. interests rely on these local workers.] Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, and should we stop paying their salaries, it really will hurt.  I suspect many will quit and never come back.

For me, the worst part of this whole thing has been the confirmation—and I say confirmation rather than realization—that few in Washington in either party care about our federal institutions, much less the people who work in them.

My colleagues and I could go bankrupt, and the institutions where we work—the very institutions that made the U.S. the greatest power in the history of the world—could wither and collapse, and almost no one in Washington would care, except to the extent that they could use the personal suffering and institutional failure to bludgeon and blame the other side.  

I’ve spent most of my foreign service career working in so-called “developing democracies,” countries where notorious criminals sat in the parliament, and presidents routinely called supreme court justices and told them how to rule on cases.  It was always easy for us as Americans to chuckle at this, then smugly lecture our foreign interlocutors about the need to build independent democratic institutions.

Little did we realize that our own American institutions were being hollowed out and destroyed from within by a political class that saw these institutions in the same way my third-world interlocutors did—a place to stash cronies and pursue partisan agendas.  This shutdown will only accelerate the long-term decline of America’s federal agencies and institutions.

For me, I’m counting down the days until I can retire.  I’ve had a good run, and my time in federal service has been good for me and my family.  The Foreign Service has given my children the opportunity to grow up all over the world, all while I served my country with great pride.  Federal employees have long gotten used to serving out of the spotlight, while getting blamed when things go wrong and rarely thanked for the many things that go right.  We’re used to being derided, sidelined, and looked upon with suspicion by one administration after another (the Trump administration, however, is by far the worst I’ve seen.)

As federal employees, we serve proudly even when no one is looking or seems to care.  But enough is enough.  This shutdown, and the complete lack of compassion or understanding in Washington, has convinced me that it’s time to go.  I can support my family and serve my community or country in lots of other ways, ones where I don’t constantly feel used, abused, and, ultimately, forgotten….

Many thanks to The Atlantic for not forgetting that there are real, human victims of the shutdown.  Almost no one in this administration and few in Congress understand or care about federal employees like me or the millions of Americans who suffer when federal employees and the institutions where we serve are politicized, eroded, and eventually destroyed.   

Update: As several readers have written in to mention, the Foreign Service officer’s note contains the line “few in either party” care about public institutions or public service.

Since I have written approximately one zillion articles, plus an entire book, on the destructive instinct toward  “false equivalence” or “both sides to blame” political analysis, many readers have asked: why didn’t I call out this line in the FSO’s letter?

One answer is, I don’t think I should give line-by-line assents or dissents to each item of reader mail. (Though I did note, in the one above, my parallel experience with locally hired embassy staffs around the world.) Another answer is that the thrust of this reader’s message didn’t seem false-equivalence minded.

But the main point is that two contradictory-seeming points could both be true, and both are part of the reader’s argument.

One is the long-term eating-of-the-seed-corn when it comes to respect for and investment in public service — except, of course, for the military. This has happened over the decades and through different administrations.

The other is the all-out emergency underway now, for which immediate responsibility falls overwhelmingly on two men. These are Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell, for reasons I laid out here. They are of course both Republicans, as are the 53 GOP Senators who enable and stand with them.

By instinct from his decades as a U.S. diplomat, I imagine that the man I quoted would resist putting things that directly. Diplomats are on duty to represent the long-term interests of the nation, and they properly resist getting into partisan arguments. But the acute stage of a chronic problem has been triggered not by both parties but by one of them.

Bonus update: here’s a sample note about both-sides-ism.

I agree with much of what your correspondent says. Many of his observations agree with me as a former Fulbrighter who has witnessed the erosion of that program, and as a faculty member at a public university in Texas, a class for which the state legislature has a particular animus.

However, when he writes, “For me, the worst part of this whole thing has been the confirmation—and I say confirmation rather than realization—that few in Washington in either party care about our federal institutions, much less the people who work in them, “ I must take exception.

No one who cares as much for democratic institutions as this person does should invoke bothsiderism in a case where one man and his obedient partisans are using the shutdown to circumvent the authority and function of those very democratic institutions.

I would be interested to know how he can make that claim, given his experience in “developing democracies.” And let’s also remember that we now live in a flawed democracy, according to The Economist’s 2018 Democracy Index. The Economist is hardly the “Justice Democrats,” but it rates the US as #25 this year and likely to drop thanks to the shutdown that only one part gleefully looked forward to.