Workers ended the shutdown. Let’s give them the power to do it even sooner next time

The air traffic control tower at LaGuardia Airport is seen Friday after the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily barred incoming flights in response to a shortage of air traffic controllers.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Friday morning at LaGuardia Airport in New York City, the traveling public felt the full bite of a federal government shutdown. Perhaps that’s why the shutdown is coming to an end — for now, at least.

President Trump announced Friday that he would sign a bill to fund the shuttered departments and agencies for three weeks while he continues to tussle with congressional Democrats over funding to build a bigger, longer wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. As a result, about 800,000 federal workers who’ve missed two paychecks — more than half of whom have been required to work during the shutdown — should soon be collecting back pay.

Democrats won this round. They had insisted throughout the shutdown that they would negotiate over the wall only after the government reopened, and that’s what the new agreement calls for. Trump, by contrast, had sought to use the shutdown as a way to force Democrats to bargain over a project that many of them strongly oppose.


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The two sides had been at an impasse until Thursday, when the Senate voted on two proposals — one by Republicans, one by Democrats — to end the shutdown. Negotiations resumed after that, and then Friday brought the most dramatic development yet: The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily stopped flights from landing at LaGuardia because of a shortage of air traffic controllers, resulting in major delays that rippled to other East Coast airports.

Evidently, some controllers had not been mollified by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ suggestion that they take out loans rather than relying on food banks until their paychecks resume. Ross, a former investment tycoon, no doubt would have an easier time getting good terms on a loan than a rank-and-file federal employee. Not that he’d need one.

Sick employees were a problem at several other airport towers, and were even more common at the Internal Revenue Service. According to the Washington Post, at least 14,000 employees at the tax agency missed work this week. Good thing it’s not a busy time for them! Oh, wait ...

I understand why it would be insane to spend even a day without controllers, troops, Transportation Security Administration screeners, Coast Guard officers, FBI and Border Patrol agents and a laundry list of other truly essential workers employed by the federal government. What I don’t understand is why we tolerate a system that lets elected officials fail to do their one real job — funding the government — with no consequences for anyone in power. Instead, the effects are felt by everyone else, from the workers whose pay is delayed indefinitely (or possibly lost, in the case of idled contractors) to the taxpayers who aren’t getting the services they’re putting up the money for.

When the consequences for the public are too great to ignore, things happen. If essential employees were idled by a shutdown, we probably wouldn’t have shutdowns — and we certainly wouldn’t have any that lasted for days, let alone weeks.


You might argue that voters will hold Trump, who claimed responsibility for this shutdown before trying to pin the blame on congressional Democrats, accountable in 2020. History suggests that they will have forgotten by then — look, for example, at what happened after congressional Republicans shut down the government in 2013 over a futile effort to defund Obamacare.

Congress could conceivably amend the Anti-Deficiency Act to allow agencies to pay essential employees even if Congress hasn’t appropriated them the money to do so. But that would only give lawmakers and the president more leeway to engage in the sort of budgetary hostage-taking that has become all too common in Washington.

Trump’s supporters insist that he had to shut down the government to gain leverage over Democrats who refused to negotiate over the president’s demand for a bigger, longer wall on the southern border. That’s a bit like saying, “I needed to kidnap your dog because you refused to negotiate over my demand to build a garage on your lawn.” Besides that, the shutdown hasn’t given Trump leverage, it’s only aggravated the public and driven down his approval ratings. He needs the shutdown to end more than Democrats do.

The agreement on the temporary-funding bill suggests this sorry episode may soon end. The way the system is set up, however, we could easily have another shutdown if there’s no deal on border security in three weeks, or if there’s another impasse when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, or in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election.

That’s just nuts.

Air traffic controllers are prohibited by law from striking, and their union disavowed any “collective” move to harm the system Friday. At the same time, the union noted how the shutdown has added stress to what’s already one of the highest-stress jobs around:


As blogger Jon Ostrower pointed out Friday, controllers may be much more concerned about tending to their immune systems the next time they’re asked to work while their paycheck is on hold. That’s a recipe for chaos, but maybe the threat of chaos is what we need to get the president and Congress to do their jobs.