Our nation is going into a second week of extreme governmental dysfunction — or nonfunction, since the federal government is shutdown as a result of the inability of Congress to pass the bills necessary to fund governmental operations. This is not some minor problem affecting only the denizens of Capitol Hill and a few agencies. In fact, Congressmembers can keep drawing their paychecks while hundreds of thousands of other federal workers are now deeply worried about paying the rent, buying food and baby formula, keeping up with family expenses because they are not being paid. Sure, Congress did manage to pass a bill last week promising to pay federal workers back pay once the government resumes operations. But that is cold comfort to the Census Bureau clerks who have no cash this morning to buy breakfast, or the Department of Education financial aid advisors who are running out of credit on their Metro farecards, not that they can go anywhere since they can’t spend money they don’t have.
Federal workers who are furloughed right now can apply for unemployment benefits in their local jurisdictions. The benefits must be repaid when the federal back pay comes through. Check with your local unemployment office on the details.
Many Trinity students have shared with me their deep concerns and personal hardships resulting from the federal government shutdown. Quite a few Trinity students work for the federal government, and many more depend on jobs at businesses related to the federal workforce — whether with nonprofits operating on government grants, or lobbying firms downtown, or the museums and monuments now closed, or even the restaurants and food trucks patronized by federal workers. The ripple effect from the obtuse, uncaring decisions of a few members of Congress is huge, appalling, destructive.
I continue to invite Trinity students, faculty and staff to let me know how the shutdown is affecting you. We will do what we can to provide some assistance as possible.
Meanwhile, all of us as citizens, taxpayers and responsible grownups need to demand a restoration of common sense and sheer decency in the corridors of power. This situation is beyond ridiculous, it is profoundly offensive to the fundamental legal and moral principles of our nation. More than two centuries ago, at the founding of this nation, James Madison warned against the dangers of factions, and the Constitutional form of government was created with checks and balances to protect the people from small-minded fringe interest groups. (See Federalist #10)
Yet, today, small-minded interest groups with large pocketbooks are creating this grave crisis. An article in Sunday’s New York Times (“A Federal Budget Crisis Months in the Planning”) documents the utterly perverse coalition of extremely wealthy individuals and a few politicians who are responsible for this mess.
In taking their oath of office, members of Congress swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That document starts with the simple phrase, “We, the People.” The People are the whole nation, not small factions. The duty of members of the House of Representatives is to exercise power for the good of the entire nation, not simply to pander to people following their individual Twitter feeds or writing big checks.
Politics is the art of compromise. The extremism that has brought the national government to a halt is not a fair exercise of political power at all, but rather, a form of tyranny that is precisely the factionalism the Founders warned against. Excising the disease of hyper-partisanship from the legislature will take significant political courage. Members of Congress, including the leadership, need to be willing to risk their elected positions in order to restore the operations of the government and to avoid further economic catastrophe with the impending debt ceiling issue.
At Trinity, our mission is to educate students with a passion for justice, a deep sense of integrity and honor, and the courage to work for change in a world that is in great need of leaders with backbone and a well-honed sense of morality. What we are witnessing downtown right now is the antithesis of good leadership and moral governance. Whatever any of us may think about the particular issues at hand, the actions of Congress are a breach of faith, a rejection of the democratic stewardship the legislature must uphold for the sake of the nation.