The president owes our nation's federal civil servants far more than missed paychecks

The president owes our nation's federal civil servants far more than missed paychecks
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After finally relenting to reopen the government in the wake of the longest shutdown in the nation’s history, president Trump thanked federal employees for their “extraordinary devotion,” calling them “fantastic people” and “incredible patriots.” Of their hardship, he stated, “Many of you have suffered far greater than anyone but your families would know or understand.” If only the president knew or understood the true extent of their sacrifice.

The president of course was referring to the financial adversity faced by the 800,000 furloughed employees who struggled to make ends meet, suffered heightened anxiety from uncertainty over their next paycheck and found themselves having to borrow money to make rent, pay bills and feed their families. Those charged with protecting our nation’s public health and safety however continued to show up and serve their country without a paycheck out of a profound sense of duty and commitment.


The fiscal calamity visited upon our federal civilian workforce provides but a mere glimpse of their real sacrifice and contribution to this nation. There is no better testament to their valor than the over 3,000 federal civilian employees who have given their lives to their country in the line of duty since 1992. 

Many of these fallen heroes served in federal law enforcement with the FBI, DEA, ATF, with ICE, the Border Patrol and other agencies, or as federal corrections officers. This figure also includes those federal employees targeted in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing or at the Washington Navy Yard, Forest Service firefighters battling backcountry blazes, fearless astronauts aboard the doomed Space Shuttle Columbia and foreign service officers killed in East Africa, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

It likewise would be remiss to ignore that nearly one third of the current federal workforce is comprised of veterans. Those veterans valiantly served their country as the ribbon-decorated, uniformed warfighters that the president (who has stated he likes his generals right “out of central casting”) professes to respect and revere. Those veterans continue to serve their country, but have traded in their fatigues for civilian clothes.

Out of uniform, however, these patriots were held hostage by the commander-in-chief of a country they fought at all costs to defend. Despite the president’s glowing words on Friday, he possesses a shameful record of disrespecting our civil servants. He has sought to reduce cost of living adjustments and retirement benefits and weakened civil service protections. 

In December, he issued an executive order depriving federal employees of a badly needed raise. He has derided federal workers as “Deep State” actors who seek to bureaucratically undermine his policies and presidency. How would the nation react if the president treated our military service members in the same way?

He wouldn’t dare. When signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2019, which ensures the military remains fully funded, the president expressed his gratitude to the military, “America is eternally grateful for every soldier, service member and family member ... And we believe our warfighters deserve the tools, the equipment and resources they have earned with their blood, sweat and tears.”

The shutdown persisted while the military was fully funded (and given a raise) in part because the president perceives the military as his voters. He admitted as much in front of a wall honoring fallen CIA heroes in 2017: “the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military.”

But of the furloughed civilian workforce, he claimed — without evidence — that “most of the people not getting paid are Democrats.” Weeks later he retweeted an article entitled, “I hope a long shutdown smokes out the resistance.”

There is no valid reason why the NOAA hurricane hunters flying into the eye of Category 5 storm or Treasury analysts working overnight to disrupt terror financing networks have not earned the “tools, equipment and resources” with their blood, sweat and tears. The president has created a hierarchy of perceived patriotism, casting our federal civilian workforce as second class citizens not worthy of the respect he affords the military — apparently because of crass partisan politics.

Denigrating the civilian workforce dishonors not only financial sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands of civil servants recently furloughed. This includes those thousands of veterans who once risked all for their country and continue to serve. It also includes the blood shed by the more than 3,000 civil servants who gave their last full measure of devotion for this nation. No one ever asked those fallen heroes how they voted.

Edgar Chen served as counsel to the assistant attorney general for the criminal division at the Department of Justice. Julie Zebrak served as a deputy chief of staff to the deputy attorney general. They are both former federal career employees and proudly served at the U.S. Departments of Justice, Treasury and Commerce for a combined 31 years between them.