Then there are the human costs. Some government employees have enough savings to carry them through weeks of no pay. But large numbers, like so many in the private sector, live from paycheck to paycheck or have a very thin safety net. NPR’s Morning Edition recently did a poignant piece on a career employee at the Bureau of Prisons who is working (every employee at the prison is essential, for obvious reasons) but getting no pay except for a pending check for the week before the shutdown occurred. He estimated his normal biweekly take-home pay at $1,300—but the one-week check he will get will have full deductions taken out for the two weeks, leaving him with roughly $200. He has two kids in college and asked host Steve Inskeep, “How am I going to pay my bills? What am I going to do for child care? How do I put fuel in the truck? I mean, I have a pickup truck. I live in southwestern PA. You know, it’s $80 to fill that tank. There’s a whole range of things and the thing is, you can’t just call off. If you call off, you’re messing with the person that’s on shift right now. He can’t go home.”
This government worker will ultimately receive his back pay. But he and numerous others, including many who make much less, including many Capitol Police applauded by members of Congress after the harrowing October 4 chase and shooting, may have to lose money by dipping into savings, maxing out on credit cards and paying exorbitant interest, or going to payday lenders. Those costs will never be paid back—and they are the people who can least afford it. Then there are the tens of thousands of people working for government contractors who have to lay off employees without pay. They will never get paid back for the work they miss.
Damaging as the shutdown is for governance, it is minor compared with the long-term damage of the sequester. The FBI has had to reduce its focus on white-collar and organized crime to deal with the higher, immediate priority of cybersecurity. The food-inspection infrastructure has been hit, reducing the number of inspectors in the U.S. and in foreign plants that ship food to the United States. This will undoubtedly lead to more outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli, with a weakened Centers for Disease Control less able to cope with the epidemics. Basic research, as I have written before, is taking devastating hits—starting with NIH but including DARPA and every other area done primarily by the federal government. Some of the damage will never be repaired. And the nation’s economy will grow more slowly, adding to our deficits and debt.
I was amused this week to see George F. Will’s column, headlined online “The Sequester: The Hammer Republicans Hold.” Will wrote approvingly, “All House Republicans should understand that the victory won in the summer of 2011—the sequester, achieved by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—still torments Democrats.” But just a few weeks ago, Will had written a column titled “The Sequester’s a Public Health Hazard.” In it he said, “NIH scientists seek intensely practical, meaning preventive and therapeutic, things that can save society more than any sequester can.” Will is smart enough to hold these two views simultaneously; he is much smarter than the House Republicans who laud the sequester without a second’s concern about health research, damage to defense infrastructure, or a decline in port inspections and border patrols.