The U.S. flag flies hang at half-staff at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on November 22, 2013.

The U.S. flag flies hang at half-staff at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on November 22, 2013. State Department

The Shutdown and the Damage Done

America's institutions are withering, says one longtime Foreign Service Officer who's calling it quits.

A current member of the U.S. Foreign Service, originally from a non-coastal ag-economy town like those that my wife, Deb, and I have been writing about, describes how the abstraction of “the shutdown” feels to him and his colleagues.

I could set it up further or highlight its implications, but instead I’ll just say: please read and think about his account:

For the first time in my 20+ years as a federal employee, I won’t get paid this week. That hurts, but fortunately my wife—also a federal employee—gets paid out of a different account, one that still has a “residual balance.”

But probably not for much longer. At that point, we’ll live off our savings while Congress and the White House continue to beat their chests and scream at one another, oblivious to the long-term damage they’re doing to our national interests.

My wife and I have savings to cover the gap, but many of our colleagues aren’t so lucky. The State Department stopped paying salaries this week for nearly half the members of the Foreign Service, many of whom struggle to get by given the high costs of housing and child care in the Washington, DC area. I don’t know how many civil servants also won’t get paid, but I assume it’s a lot. Many of them work in low-paid clerical jobs in the DC area, and they can scarcely afford missing a single paycheck.

The so-called Locally Employed Staff, aka the non-Americans who work at U.S. Embassies around the world, are still getting paid, but no one knows for how much longer. Many of these local staff endure harassment and worse because they work for the U.S. government. [James Fallows notes: Yes, I have seen this around the world, and know how heavily U.S. embassies and U.S. interests rely on these local workers.] Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, and should we stop paying their salaries, it really will hurt. I suspect many will quit and never come back.

For me, the worst part of this whole thing has been the confirmation—and I say confirmation rather than realization—that few in Washington in either party care about our federal institutions, much less the people who work in them.

My colleagues and I could go bankrupt, and the institutions where we work—the very institutions that made the U.S. the greatest power in the history of the world—could wither and collapse, and almost no one in Washington would care, except to the extent that they could use the personal suffering and institutional failure to bludgeon and blame the other side.

I’ve spent most of my foreign service career working in so-called “developing democracies,” countries where notorious criminals sat in the parliament, and presidents routinely called supreme court justices and told them how to rule on cases. It was always easy for us as Americans to chuckle at this, then smugly lecture our foreign interlocutors about the need to build independent democratic institutions.

Little did we realize that our own American institutions were being hollowed out and destroyed from within by a political class that saw these institutions in the same way my third-world interlocutors did—a place to stash cronies and pursue partisan agendas. This shutdown will only accelerate the long-term decline of America’s federal agencies and institutions.For me, I’m counting down the days until I can retire. I’ve had a good run, and my time in federal service has been good for me and my family. The Foreign Service has given my children the opportunity to grow up all over the world, all while I served my country with great pride. Federal employees have long gotten used to serving out of the spotlight, while getting blamed when things go wrong and rarely thanked for the many things that go right. We’re used to being derided, sidelined, and looked upon with suspicion by one administration after another (the Trump administration, however, is by far the worst I’ve seen).

As federal employees, we serve proudly even when no one is looking or seems to care. But enough is enough. This shutdown, and the complete lack of compassion or understanding in Washington, has convinced me that it’s time to go. I can support my family and serve my community or country in lots of other ways, ones where I don’t constantly feel used, abused, and, ultimately, forgotten….

Many thanks to The Atlantic for not forgetting that there are real, human victims of the shutdown. Almost no one in this administration and few in Congress understand or care about federal employees like me or the millions of Americans who suffer when federal employees and the institutions where we serve are politicized, eroded, and eventually destroyed.

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