A Foreign Service Officer on Life During the Shutdown

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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.

In response to these past few items – ” Let Them Eat Vacation Days,” ” 3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown,” and ” Yet Another Reason to End the Shutdown ” – furloughed federal workers write in about their experiences.

Vacation days aren’t the bonanza that they may seem. Last night the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, said in apparent seriousness that furloughed federal workers were “in a sense better off,” since they were in effect on “vacation” now and would eventually get back pay.

One veteran federal worker, who is also a military veteran, disagrees:

It’s worth noting that even by Mr. Hassett’s logic there’s going to be workers that are considerably worse off, because an awful lot of federal workers carry “use-or-lose” vacation (I always did).

One of our friends did, in fact, have a lot of vacation scheduled for January that she was forced to take. Now she’s furloughed instead — and if the furlough ends in the next month, has to take that vacation right away. Which means she’ll probably just go to work “on vacation” to clear out a backlog — she’s not getting “free” vacation days, she’s getting screwed out of them.

Yes, it’s complicated. Another worker to similar effect:

Because the leave year ended January 5, and there is a maximum number of annual leave hours that can be carried forward, some of those furloughed employees were probably using “use or lose” leave. I am unsure whether the furlough would justify restoration of that leave for all those employees.

(My particular agency is permitting restoration, but that appears to be a agency decision, rather than a broadly-applicable OPM or OMB decision.)

So these employees might not have both leave and pay for furloughed time; they might have to forfeit the leave they were scheduled to take, and to suffer weeks without pay and without knowing whether they will ever get paid, before possibly being paid.

In addition, furlough is a non-pay status, and lengthy periods of non-pay status reduces a number of benefits. For example, accrual of annual leave stops after 80 hours in non-pay status. See this paper.

In my agency, people scheduled to retire during the furlough period are at risk of losing their final (time off) performance award, and having no option for restoration.

I’ve personally lost some leave hours of a yet another type, which also have no restoration provision.

Our only mistake.” A federal employee on the lesson that this episode is teaching:

In “3 Simple Facts About the Shutdown”, you conclude by saying: “But it’s hard to imagine a decent case for knowingly inflicting damage on hundreds of thousands of public servants, who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue and whose only mistake was to have chosen a vulnerable line of work.”

Showing my bias [as a federal employee], I would suggest that the public servants’ only mistake was to commit themselves to public service, swearing an oath to bear true faith and allegiance the Constitution of the United States.

Had we chosen to put party before the Constitution, we could be welcomed (and currently paid) in the legislative branch or some other partisan position; had we chosen to put mammon before the Constituion, we could be paid in the private sector. It was our choice to put the Constitution and the country first that made us pawns.

But, perhaps you are right in saying that “a vulnerable line of work” is working to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty”.

Twilight zone. The experience of past shutdowns:

As a retired Foreign Service officer, I deeply appreciate your attention to the current shutdown.

I served through three of the previous ones, in 1995-1996 and in 2013. I was the only person in my office required to come in during the two earlier shutdowns, in order to resolve a war involving a country with which I was working.

It was a deeply stressful time; after all, one can’t pay today’s mortgage with next month’s money. And it was also a very lonely one; the darkened halls at the State Department were so empty that as I walked down them, the motion sensors would light each block of hallway ahead of me, like something out of the “Twilight Zone.”

The memory of that experience is ugly, as will be the memories of federal employees suffering similarly now. They and the country they serve deserve better.

Agreed.

This evening on the PBS Newshour, the chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, Kevin Hassett, said this about workers who are going without pay as the government shutdown nears its fourth week:

Right now about 25% of government workers are furloughed. Which means that they are not allowed to go to work.

But then when the shutdown ends, they go back to work, and they get their back pay.

A huge share of government workers were going to take vacation days, say between Christmas and New Year’s.

And then we have a shutdown, and so they can’t go to work. So then they have the vacation, but they don’t have to use their vacation days. And then they come back, and they get their back pay.

Then in some sense they’re better off.

You can see it for yourself, in Hassett’s talk with PBS’s Paul Solman, starting at time 4:20 of this clip.

I spent enough time in grad-school economics courses to understand the utility-maximization “logic” Hassett is applying. (“Let’s see, the workers are getting all that free time over the holidays, and they still have vacation days in the bank, so overall they come out ahead!”) And in fairness to Hassett, he was talking about the roughly half of furloughed federal workers who are instructed to stay home and not work – rather than the air traffic controllers, TSA screeners, etc, who are told to show up and worry about their pay some other time.

But I have spent enough time in the world to imagine how this will sound to people who have no idea when their regular pay will resume, whose lives and plans are being upended for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with their own performance and competence, and who do not consider themselves in any sense “better off.”

Today’s life-in-DC gazette: a little while ago I was in a line at a coffee shop with a middle-aged man, who from his accent I guessed (correctly) was from Nigeria. We talked while we were waiting. His was a standard life-in-our times story: He came to the US about 30 years ago. Now a citizen and small-business owner. Children all born here and in, or headed to, college. One of his nephews is a TSA screener at a DC-area airport.

“His rent was due on the 5 th, man,” he told me, of his nephew. “He covered that, but then he was counting on his normal paycheck tomorrow. That’s not going to come, and he’s got his credit card payments. And he has to keep showing up at work each day.” The man I was talking to said he assumed he might have to tide his nephew over through the shutdown.

We all “know” this is happening. But it can be easy to lose sight of how extraordinary and unfair it is. Not a single person within TSA-or the National Park Service, or the Food and Drug Administration, or the Census Bureau, or any other agency-has a single thing to do with the showdown over Donald Trump’s “wall.” But hundreds of thousands of them are being penalized and disrupted by what will soon be the longest shutdown in history.

It can also be easy to lose sight of three baseline realities of this abusive situation. Here’s the summary, with a few more details on each, lower down.

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  • Reality one: As recently as three weeks ago, Donald Trump was perfectly willing to keep the government open and defer funding for his wall- until a right-wing chorus made fun of him for looking “weak.”
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  • Reality two: Trump and his Congressional party never bestirred themselves to fund this wall back when they had unquestioned power to do so, during the era of Republican control of the Congress in 2017 and 2018.
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  • Reality three: the U.S.-Mexico border has come under more control in recent years, not less. It’s been controlled by fences and walls in the busiest areas – as has been the practice for decades. The “crisis” is the politics of the issue, not its underlying realities.

Read on, for more details of each of the three. Or if you stop here, please keep those three points in mind.

A few more details, on facts that everyone knows but that can slip from sight in the froth of “both sides dig in” daily news updates.

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  1. Donald Trump and the Republican Senate were perfectly willing to keep the government open, until the likes of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh began mocking them as “losers” and “sell-outs.”

    You can read the specificsat the end of this piece, but the sequence is indisputable. On December 18, Mitch McConnell’s GOP-run Senate passed, on a unanimous voice vote, a “clean” funding measure, to keep the government open and postpone funding fights about “the wall.” They did so with guidance from the White House that Donald Trump would go along.

    Then the right-wing mocking began; then immediate funding for the wall became an “emergency”; then Trump preferred a shutdown to appearing to “lose.” Mitch McConnell’s GOP of course switched right along with him-andagainst the measure all of its members had supported just days ago.

    One man’s insecurity, and his party’s compliance, are disrupting millions of lives.

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  3. During the two years in which Trump and the Republicans could easily have gotten funding for the wall, they didn’t bother to try.

    Through all of 2017 and 2018, Trump’s GOP held a large majority in the House, and a workable majority in the Senate. Trump and the GOP took care to ram through things they really cared about in that period, from Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Trump tax cuts.

    They didn’t bother to try for a wall. The supposed “emergency”didn’t matter when they had power to get their way. As Ezra Kleinhas argued, the most plausible explanation is that Trump doesn’t actually care about having a wall. He cares about being seen as fighting for it (as Ronald Brownstein has explained).

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  5. The number of illegal crossings on the U.S.-Mexico border, like the percentage of undocumented residents and workers in the U.S., has been going down, not up. That’s not the tone of political talk, but it’s what academic and government research shows. For instance, consider this recent report from Pew.

    Border security is important, and for decades politicians of both parties have supported fences and walls in populated areas as obvious necessities. The photo at the top of this post, was taken near Tijuana 11 years ago. (The U.S. built the wall; Mexican graffitists provided the illustration.) When I dida big cover story for The Atlantic on immigration more than 35 years ago-yes, during Ronald Reagan’s first term, in 1983-I visited fences and walls in California, Arizona, and Texas.

    Walls themselves aren’t controversial. They’re part of what Republicans and Democrats have long recommended for stable controls at the border-and they’re part of what has made immigrant flows more rather than less manageable.The wall, a fantasized Maginot-style structure stretching 2,000 miles from the Pacific to the Gulf Coast, is different. That’s what Trump is pushing for-now that he no longer has a chance to get it.

People obviously disagree on these issues. You could make a case for a much different approach to immigration than the one I might personally favor. But it’s hard to imagine a decent case for knowingly inflicting damage on hundreds of thousands of public servants, who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue and whose only mistake was to have chosen a vulnerable line of work.

On Monday I mentioned what the prolonged government shutdown is doing to the nation’s air-travel system: namely, slowing it down.

The whole system is based on built-in safety buffers. Everyone within it knows that air traffic controllers and TSA screeners, whose jobs are stressful enough at best, have new personal worries. Therefore controllers, dispatchers, TSA supervisors, and others who keep the traffic moving are building in extra protection, mainly by giving themselves more time.

This means more separation for aircraft in what William Langewiesche called the ” slam and jam ” approach patterns to airports; more time for a screener to take another look at a bag; more caution about everything, since-shutdown or no-the consequences of a hasty mistake could be so grave. People running the system would be irresponsible to do anything else. (Yes, before you point it out: I realize how odd it sounds even to discuss “responsibility” in current circumstances.)

Now Jirs Meuris, of the University of Wisconsin Business School, explains why this cautious approach is even more important than it may seem. In a research paper last fall, he discussed studies showing that the more worried employees were about their personal finances, the more accident- and error-prone they were in their work.

For instance:

[We collaborated] with a national transportation company to collect survey data from over 1,000 short-haul truck drivers and track their accident rates for the subsequent eight months.

Analysis of this data revealed that financial worry was associated with a higher probability of a preventable accident by decreasing drivers’ available cognitive capacity at work….

Based upon the average cost of a commercial truck accident, we estimated that financial worry was associated with $1.3 million per year in company costs due to the higher rates of preventable accidents.

And:

To replicate our findings, we subsequently moved to a laboratory setting. As part of these lab sessions, participants imagined that their car had a break down with an attached price tag of $150 or $1,500 and were asked to write about how this expense would affect their life. Afterward, they completed two cognitive tests and a driving simulation.

After being asked to imagine the consequences of a minor repair bill, or a major one, the subjects took cognitive tests and did a driving simulation. Randomly chosen subjects who were thinking about a $1,500 bill did worse than those thinking they’d have to cover $150.

How would this apply in current shutdown circumstances? Through the university, Jirs Meuris (more of his research here) put out this statement today:

Based on my research, we should be worried about the impact of the current shutdown on our national security and health as thousands of government workers including those at the FBI, DEA, FDA, Border Patrol, and TSA work to protect us from threats while going without a paycheck and living in a state of financial uncertainty.

As their financial insecurity grows, we can be sure that our own security falters along with it. We need to recognize that a shutdown over border security may actually do more harm to it than what there may be to gain from it.

Mitch McConnell could end this insanity tomorrow, by scheduling another vote on the “clean resolution” that passed the Senate on unanimous voice vote three weeks ago, and would clearly pass again now. (The nitty-gritty is discussed at the end of this post.) Donald Trump could end it by returning to his position as of December 19, which was after he’d signaled to the Congress that he would sign that resolution-but before he was scared off by mockery for this “cave in” from Ann Coulter, Steve Doocy, and Rush Limbaugh. And of course, if it really had been of such existential importance, he could worked toward it over the past two years, when his party controlled the Senate and the House.

Meanwhile, we rely on the willingness of hundreds of thousands of public employees to keep showing up for work, keep figuring out how they’ll pay their bills, and meanwhile try to give full mind-share to the next airplane on final approach, and the next bag through the X-ray machine.