The price of the never-ending federal shutdown

The Thinker by Rodin

Before we left for our vacation in Ecuador, I was wondering if two weeks later there would be anyone left around to let us back in. I was not particularly prescient in believing that the government would still be shut down. Still, our trip home from Quito connecting in Miami was nervous. Would TSA and Customs be on the job? Would we be able to catch our connecting flight on time?

It worked out for us, only because some gods decided to put us on TSA PreCheck. We were scanned leaving Quito but that’s not good enough for the TSA; if you are an international arrival, you have to go through TSA’s scanning. So when we finally got to TSA screening in Miami, it took less than five minutes, while the queue in the regular line was 15-20 minutes. So we made our connecting flight to Boston, but just barely, practically running the whole way to our gate (not easy when my wife has a bad knee).

On these international flights coming into the U.S. you must also go through Customs. There things were a bit alarming. It’s not that we had to wait a long time to get through Customs. It was just the opposite. Everyone was being hustled through at warp speed. You make your declarations at machines now. When we finally got to a customs’ agent, he never bothered to ask us a single question, just glanced at our passport and waived us through. It was just as alarming after we claimed our luggage. Yes, you have to claim them and check them again on your domestic flight. You drag your luggage past a few CBP agents who may ask to check your baggage. But they couldn’t be bothered. We had just come from Ecuador. We could have easily smuggled many kilos of cocaine in our suitcase. Perhaps dogs were sniffing the luggage before we picked it up, but the CBP agents looked like they didn’t give a damn. No one’s luggage was being pulled aside. I was left with the impression that our unpaid TSA and CBP agents were present in body, but not in spirit.

I also suspect that things are going to get worse. At some point this house of cards is going to collapse. There are already signs of it. Over the holiday weekend, 10% of TSA agents did not show up for work. Certain airports, like Atlanta (the world’s busiest airport), are already experiencing moderate to severe delays due to insufficient TSA staffing. Federal employees are not allowed to strike, but you can only test their patience so long when they are not getting paid. If this government shutdown goes on long enough, it may be rebellious federal employees figuring they have little to lose who gunk up the machinery of government that manage to break the logjam.

It’s clear that the shutdown is just going to drag on and get worse. It’s also clear that in particular Republicans really don’t care who they hurt. Some of them see government dysfunction as a good thing. If federal employees go homeless or people starve because they don’t get their food stamps, hey, it’s no skin off their backs. So it will probably take some major government lapse to move things, but even so there’s no guarantee. If hundreds get sick from E. coli infections because food inspectors are furloughed, or airplanes start crashing because federal authorities haven’t inspected them, maybe some action will happen. This shutdown shows every likelihood of continuing for months.

Action may finally happen when sufficient numbers of businesses petition Congress to end it. Republicans do listen to business. The airline industry is already suffering, and they give lots of money principally to Republicans in Congress. Delta Airlines figures the shutdown has cost them $25M so far in January. Threaten to stop giving these politicians money and they may find the courage to do what is necessary. Or certain segments of federal workers forced to work without pay may find the courage to strike. How are you supposed to get to work if you can’t afford bus fare?

If TSA and CBP agents en masse stopped showing up for work, that would ratchet up the level of this crisis. The shutdown’s continuation depends of the patience and suffering of people who can’t exist in this state forever. If they strike then perhaps Trump, like Reagan with air traffic controllers, would decide to fire them all. Perhaps he’d send in the military to do their job. TSA agents though don’t have that much to lose. Most are paid around $30K a year, a pittance for a federal employee, plus they have to work at inconvenient times and at weird shifts.

I just don’t see how this ends. There is simply the absence of leadership to end it. Moreover we have a tone-deaf president that cannot see past six feet in front of him. Vladimir Putin must be ecstatic watching our great nation crumble into dysfunction.

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