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It’s Outrageous That Congress Is Paid in a Shutdown When Most Federal Workers Aren’t

It’s Outrageous That Congress Is Paid in a Shutdown When Most Federal Workers Aren’t
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Strikingly, one group of federal employees will not stop receiving their paychecks during a shutdown: members of Congress.

Strikingly, one group of federal employees will not stop receiving their paychecks during a shutdown: members of Congress.

Video Source: Advocate Channel

Editor's note: Rob Rosenthal is the John E. Andrus Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Wesleyan University. His current book project is “Living the Plan: What if Voting for War Meant Joining the Front Ranks?” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) — It’s clear to everyone that a government shutdown would mean massive disruption to the country and considerable hardship for both federal employees and those who rely on one or another government service — meaning virtually everyone in the country.

Transportation would be disrupted, particularly at airports where air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel would be missing. Public health would suffer as the public health facilities, the Federal Drug Administration, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency would all cut back services. Federal museums would close, and perhaps also National Parks. Student loan programs would be disrupted. Millions of families would face potential loss of essential nutrition through the SNAP (food stamps) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) programs. And on and on.

The great majority of our almost 4 million federal employees would be furloughed without pay. Many of them “live paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford to miss one payday, let alone more,” Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, told CNN. On average, CNN reported, AFGE members earn “between $55,000 and $65,000 a year, while hourly workers earn an average of $45,000 annually. But thousands make closer to $15 an hour, or $31,200 a year.”

Most simply wouldn’t have the resources to ride out the storm. They would fall behind on rent or mortgage payments, borrow from family, give up planned purchases, use food pantries. They would scrape by on savings or running up credit card debt or finding alternative work. Even those not furloughed — so-called “essential workers” who are expected to work though not paid — may not show up at work since they’d need to do paying work to get them and their families through. As a result of furloughs and workers finding alternative work, the lives of all citizens would be diminished.

But strikingly, one group of federal employees would not stop receiving their paychecks: members of Congress. Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution requires that members of Congress be paid while in office. Even if Congress wanted to change this they couldn’t — the 27th Amendment forbids Congress from raising (or lowering or withholding) their own salaries during their current term. At the time of this writing, very few representatives seem to have grasped the injustice of this situation: The very people who are causing the government shutdown will not suffer the consequences.

This distinction between making a plan and living the plan is typical of the decisions that politicians, employers, managers, and others commanding power engage in every day. They create and mandate policies which generate consequences for others that they will not personally suffer themselves. What would it mean if those members of Congress who forced a shutdown of the government faced the same economic consequences as the average AFGE employee? Would a shutdown still seem like such a reasonable political strategy?

The division between making the plan and living the plan is not inevitable or universal. The essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes that, “historically, all warlords and warmongers were warriors themselves … [L]ess than a third of Roman emperors died in their beds.” As the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky famously turned down offers of evacuation from Kyiv: “I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition,” he said. He is beloved in his country because he’s living the plan.

The hypocrisy of those willing to shut down the government in order to force more permanent spending cuts in the federal government is all the more obvious in the cuts they are demanding. The Center on Budget Priorities has estimated that achieving the reduced funding levels proposed by radical Republicans while fully funding veterans and defense budgets “would mean an average cut of 23 percent to domestic programs” — Head Start, Meals on Wheels, housing vouchers, Pell Grants, food stamps and so on. These cuts are necessary, they claim, because increased federal spending is leading to “a debt crisis that would devastate working-class Americans and condemn future generations to a less prosperous and less free America.”

But what isn’t proposed for cuts of any kind? Congressional salaries. Nowhere do we see the proposal for a 23 percent cut in Congressional salaries (and the very substantial benefits they receive). Nor, by and large, do members of Congress use the programs they propose cutting. Again: They make the plan, but they do not intend to live the plan.

Trust in politicians and government is at a near-record low. At this point, the Pew Research Center reports, “fewer than two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government to do what is right” all or most of the time. Two in 10.

An overwhelming majority of those polled in recent years believe politicians are only out for themselves. Whatever side of the political spectrum we’re on, we feel the divide between those making the decisions and those living the decisions. We can taste the hypocrisy when politicians tell us cutbacks, sacrifices, belt-tightening, government shutdowns are necessary for some greater good: If these things are so necessary, why aren’t they also living the plan?

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Rob Rosenthal