Thursday, October 3, 2013

Government Shutdown: A Personal Perspective

There are plenty of people writing about the government shutdown. I’m reading articles about how it’s affecting people in different ways and how it’s affecting all of us as a society. I’m reading about the President’s stance and the House Republican’s stance and how the prospects of the government opening up soon don’t look too good. And this evening I’m reading about a woman who, according to current news reports, died on Capitol Hill today after ramming her car (!!with a child inside!!) into a barrier. I have no idea if that’s connected to the shutdown or not. It’s just terrible, no matter what the story.

With all that, I wonder if it’s even worth writing about the shutdown in a personal way. And yet as I read the news it seems like there are still people who don’t get how big and real this is to so many of us. There are still people who are saying that this is okay. I don’t know if those people will read this. Probably not, right? But the shutdown is not okay with me. It’s real and it is making a big and personal impact.

I’m a federal employee. I’m one of the fortunate ones whose work was deemed essential, which means I’m still working this week and that I will eventually get paid for the work. The key word here is eventually; I won’t get paid until Congress passes a budget so that there is money to pay my salary. Like the all rest of the federal civilians I’ll be living off savings until then. I’m very blessed that I have some savings to do this, because not everyone does. I also count myself fortunate that at least I will get that money back again, unlike my mom, my brother-in-law, and several friends who are involuntarily sitting at home this week. They aren’t celebrating or having fun, they are worrying about how they will get the bills paid. They have no assurance that this loss of pay will be made up to them eventually. I’m worried about them.

Because the furlough is going on, I’m not allowed to take my earned vacation time from work right now. My work was deemed essential, remember? That means I have to be there, even though I had previously been approved for a few days vacation in a few weeks. So that trip in a few weeks to attend a good friend’s wedding, the trip I paid for months ago and have been looking forward to for those months? I may not be able to go at all. It depends on my director granting permission for me to be furloughed without pay for a couple days. It’s not a matter of obtaining coverage, because I’ve worked those issues out. It’s just a matter of policy. I know my friends will understand, but it’s not the kind of event you get a second chance to attend.

My daughter has been asking to go to the zoo. We live near Washington D.C. and the National Zoo is one of our favorite destinations. We also love the Natural History Museum which has dinosaur bones and a butterfly pavilion. Both of those are closed right now. Have you tried explaining to a three-year-old that the government is shut down and that’s why she can’t go to the zoo? And then that she can’t go to her favorite museum? It didn’t go over well.

At work I’ve seen several patients now who have been suicidal because of the financial stress of the furlough. These are hard working, middle class people who won’t be able to pay their mortgages until Congress gets its act together and passes a budget so they can go back to work. Even then they will be scrambling to catch up and make up for that missed pay. If the shutdown continues it becomes the kind of blow that can wreck a family financially. People do kill themselves in despair over financial problems. I can try to help but I know I can’t save everyone. Those lives aren't replaceable. You can't measure them in dollar amounts because they are of infinite worth. But if this keeps going on, some lives are going to be lost.

Some of those issues, particularly the ones that are just mine, are small, I know. I do count myself as someone who is very lucky. If you are in agreement with the shutdown, I guess you could read this and shrug. You could say “so what?” or “big deal!” or “you made your choices, live with them.” And I would say you’re right. My problems aren’t huge. I mention them because they are mine, and they are real, and I want you to understand that this isn’t a game or a story. This isn't some minor blip that will quickly be forgotten. 

You're right to say my choices are my own. I made a choice to serve my country, both as an active duty military member in the past and now as a federal employee. I made that choice with the expectation, which I think is reasonable, that my country would hold up its end of the bargain and continue to function. I think it’s not unreasonable for me to expect Congress, whose members are also paid to serve, to honor its own responsibilities by passing a budget.

I blame Congress for the shutdown. The passing of a budget to keep the country running should never, ever be a bargaining chip. It should never be a tool for a minority to terrorize the majority into giving them what they couldn’t win through elections and legislation and courts. It’s too important and too many lives are affected. Members of Congress, please be aware that you are hurting real people with your actions. As you posture and play games and insist that you be given your own way, you are damaging real lives. And if you can’t act with wisdom and compassion, you might consider acting with your own self-interest in mind. After all, even if you don’t care about me, I will remember you. And I vote.