Retroactive Pay for Furloughed Government Workers?

I have mixed feelings about the Bill passed by the House of Representatives Friday to retroactively pay furloughed government workers after the current “shutdown” ends.  On the one hand, I think it would be unfair to those workers for them to lose that pay over the farcical disputes that have created the “shutdown.”  But, if they are going to be paid, it would seem that they should be on the job and earning that pay that will eventually be coming their way (pending the approval of the Senate and president).  Why should federal workers be given a paid vacation while people who want passports and visas are inconvenienced, national park are closed, and so on?

But, if the workers who will receive retroactive pay were all back on the job, there would be no shutdown.  The whole thing makes it obvious that the motive behind the shutdown is to penalize citizens because their representatives cannot agree.

Of course, they choose to shut down things that inconvenience citizens, because otherwise who would care about this political theater?  We want to visit the national parks.  Would anybody protest if they defunded the NSA until their impasse was resolved?  But, they can’t inconvenience citizens too much.  The last time they did this they furloughed air traffic controllers, resulting in a citizen backlash.  This time, those air traffic controllers, and the TSA, have moved from “nonessential” to “essential” employees.  A dozen years ago we didn’t even have a TSA, and now it is “essential.”  From this citizen’s standpoint, they are shutting down the wrong parts of government, but of course, that’s the whole idea.

If they are telling workers they will get paid, they should also be telling them they have to show up to work to get that pay.  Congress won’t do that, because it would lower public awareness of the political drama they are trying to create.  Our elected representatives are telling us, “We are behaving badly, so we are going to punish you.”

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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