It’s as though our elected officials are tormenting middle-class workers for the sport of it

One of my oldest friends works for one of the federal government’s three-letter agencies. After more than a decade serving her community, she recently decided to seize an opportunity to serve her country. So, mindful of that transition, I called her this past weekend to ask how she was holding up.

“I’m doing OK,” she lied, nonetheless striking a brave note despite having worked unpaid for the better part of a month.

“Yeah, but are you OK really?” I persisted. “The shutdown isn’t causing any undue hardship?”

“Well,” she said after a pause, likely searching for the most optimistic response, “I didn’t take this job for the paycheck.”

My friend is one of those bafflingly selfless people who would work for free if it were practical. And, like more than 800,000 of her fellow federal colleagues, she’s also one of those people who’s working for free because she has to.

It’s been over a month since political dysfunction precipitated yet another federal government shutdown; this one is the longest in history. That depressing distinction signifies mass multitudes of public-sector employees (to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of federal contractors) who haven’t received paychecks since well before Christmas, but who are still reporting to work to perform the critical government functions that ensure the vitality of our society.

Indeed, I write this column from 30,000 feet, having just passed through a security gate staffed by unpaid employees of the Transportation Security Administration.

“I’ve got a few days before I’m in trouble,” the woman feeding my luggage through the belt-scanner told me as I wished her the best and then awkwardly thanked her for showing up to work. I felt weird heading off on leave — still receiving my federal paycheck — while she was reporting for duty, in uniform but unpaid.

I mumbled a few more words of support and a stupid apology. “Oh don’t worry, baby,” she said, smiling.  “At least everyone is being really nice to us for a change.”

Maybe so. But pleasantries won’t put food on the table, nor will it insulate Americans from the second- and third-order effects of delayed paychecks.

Those who brush aside these federal workers’ pain are oblivious to the interconnectedness of our economy, where a month’s worth of missed paydays means a landlord can’t cover the mortgage on her rental property because the tenant can’t make his rent on time. I’ll spare you further example.

A government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to pass sufficient appropriations bills to fund the federal government’s operations (or when the president refuses to sign such bills into law). In these instances, the federal government must curtail certain services and furlough “non-essential” personnel.

Since 1976 — forty-three years ago, for those of you following along at home — there have been a total of 10 government shutdowns wherein federal employees were furloughed; two of those instances occurred in just the last year. Indeed, shutting down the government has now become a seemingly annual tactic. But to what effect?

It’s not my objective here to express an opinion on “the Wall,” or on immigration policy, or on the proper application of tax dollars to ensure border security. I don’t know enough about these topics to commit any thoughts on them to record.

But what I do know is that there are friends and family and neighbors nationwide who are laboring under increasing economic hardship to keep our society afloat, and it’s hard to see how shutting down the government has meaningfully contributed to resolving this political dispute.

Given the wholesale lack of any sense of urgency that the shutdown has lent to high-level discussions, was it even necessary? In what way will it have facilitated any eventual compromise? Clearly it didn’t accelerate negotiations.

Have we arrived at a place where our democracy doesn’t work unless pain is being inflicted on those who keep us safe from terror, poison, crime, and pollution? If our elected representatives are unable to negotiate unless hostages are involved, can’t we at least ask that the hostages be relevant?

This whole ordeal is reminiscent of the time that I threatened to cut the hair off my sister’s favorite doll if she didn’t let me have the window seat. The problem was that I had the wrong sister’s doll.

And explaining to Brenna afterwards that it was awfully hard to keep track of which toy belonged to which sister provided only the coldest of comforts, as she tragically cradled her newly-bald Kid Sister doll while Robin laughed at us from her prized perch by the window.

Similarly, federal employees can be forgiven for wondering how deliberately jeopardizing their finances creates any type of meaningful leverage at the bargaining table. It’s as though our elected officials are tormenting middle-class workers for the sport of it, forcing nearly a million people to go without paychecks so that they can score rhetorical points against one another on cable news.

As a soldier, I’m one of those lucky federal employees whose compensation is deemed too critical to mess with. Yet both my oath to uphold the Constitution and my duty to defend the nation are impossible tasks absent the contributions of so many others who each constitute a small but crucial piece of the puzzle.

Our reservoirs and food supply, our coastlines and air space, our energy grids and satellites — they’re all protected by thousands of federal employees whose efforts secure our way of life, whether in shoring up our stock markets or facilitating our daily commutes. Each of those citizens play a small role — often indirectly — in supporting the most successful society our species has ever known.

And right now, they’re working solely for love of country, as bills pile up.

Still framed in my apartment is a memorandum emailed to all servicemembers exactly one year ago by our revered former defense secretary, on the eve of yet another looming government shutdown. Amid that rancor and uncertainty, Secretary Jim Mattis’s memo was personal, gracious, and soothing, urging the nation’s warfighters to remain the calming beacon of selfless sacrifice that he knew them to be.

And while I didn’t think to share his words with my friend as we got off the phone, this column offers me a second chance to channel General Mattis, in the hopes of comforting her and the many Americans on whose federal service we gratefully depend:

“Steady as she goes — hold the line. I know our Nation can count on you.”

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of New Scotland, currently stationed in Florida with the United States Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne).