A protestor outside Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport with a placard telling people that FAA Safety Inspectors have been furloughed in Newark, New Jersey, due to the government shutdown, January 8, 2019. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Where politicians victimise their own citizens: a dispatch from the US shutdown

The US federal government shutdown is a case of political and economic vandalism, committed by politicians against the people who elected them, writes Alex Braae from the USA.

The guy in the museum got quite agitated when I mentioned we were about to drive to White Sands National Park. He was already a slightly wild-looking type, with long greying hair and coloured lensed glasses. Across much of Texas, he would have stood out as a hippie, but in the artsy town of Marfa, he fit in quite well.

He brought up an article he had read about White Sands, which as a national park was closed because of the ongoing shutdown of the federal government. But people were still climbing the fences to get in. “It has literally brought all the barbarians out of the woodwork,” he exclaimed. “They hate the federal government, so they’re going in there and trashing the place, shitting all over the place and leaving the toilet paper to blow across the desert.” It was vandalism, he said, a boiling over of resentment that the government could simply stop functioning.

Heading to the park itself, it was clear that he was right. White Sands is exactly what it sounds like – a huge stretch of desert dunes. It’s all fenced up, but in one area on the side of a motorway the sand has blown over the fence, creating a mound that can act as a crossing. People were parking up with impunity, despite the signs, and simply walking in. There were no rangers to stop them, and the only law enforcement for miles was all stationed at a border patrol checkpoint about ten miles away.

The situation there, and at national parks across the USA, is a microcosm of the profound political and economic vandalism of the shutdown itself. Currently, close to a million federal employees are either working without pay, or not allowed to come into work at all. They may get back pay once it’s resolved, or they may not – either way, they’ve had to go through the holiday season without any money coming in. That means at the lighter end, some families won’t have been able to afford Christmas presents. At the heavier end, others will have fallen behind on mortgage payments. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some government workers could end up homeless if the shutdown drags on for weeks.

Cars parked up at the shuttered White Sands National Park in New Mexico, where the dunes have made the fence obsolete (Alex Braae)

It obviously affects all of them a great deal, but they’re far from the only victims of this. On a talkback radio show broadcast by NPR, the point was made that the economic effects will be far wider. Around all of those federally operated sites, there are whole industries that are built up to cater for people visiting and working there. Food truck owners around the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, for example, won’t be making any money at the moment. Why would they even bother driving in each morning? In some cases, like the towns around Yosemite National Park in California, the entire economy relies on visitor spending. For tourists like us coming through on holiday, it’s a bit annoying. For the people whose livelihoods depend on it, it’s catastrophic, and the effects keep cascading out. 

One caller wasn’t sympathetic at all. Why should federal employees be treated any differently, he asked, to any other industry where there was a downturn? Carpenters didn’t get back-pay when nobody wanted them to build houses. And he was right, up to a point – the USA doesn’t really have much of a safety net for those who fall on hard times, outside of charity. Food stamps programmes, some of the courts, and domestic violence shelters are some of the other programmes on hold or shuttered along with the government, which will tear away at the fabric of society for many of the most vulnerable citizens. Living in the land of the free can also mean the freedom to starve.

The shutdown began before the new Congress was sworn in – one in which the House of Representatives would be controlled by the Democrats, as opposed to the previous situation where both houses of Congress and the presidency were all controlled by the Republicans. But the new Congress appeared to galvanise the spite of President Donald Trump – he would get the $5 billion he wanted for his wall, he insisted, and he wasn’t willing to come to a compromise. The promise made long ago that Mexico would pay for it appears to have fallen by the wayside.

The irony of it all is – the border seems pretty bloody secure. Over and above the vast camps that asylum seekers are being held in, there is actually obvious fencing all over the border. There are thousands of troops stationed at the border. We read about plans for border patrol drones to start flying from Marfa Airport in the local paper, the Big Bend Sentinel (paywalled) despite significant local opposition. Fewer Mexicans are crossing the border or living in the USA illegally, and many of those trying to cross now are simply asylum seekers, trying to escape likely death in their home countries in Central America – ironically, some of the responsibility for the conditions in those home countries can be put on the USA, and their previous interventions.

The Southwest USA is dotted with border patrol checkpoints, in some cases miles away from the actual border line itself. They’re big, unfriendly looking structures which can’t be avoided on highways, where officers walk up and down the lines of parked cars with leaping dogs, to sniff out drugs or hidden people. Passports are checked everywhere. The officers have always been fairly jovial with us as New Zealanders – an officer even cracked a few jokes to me while I was briefly detained at Houston Airport for further passport checks. But behind the smiles is serious steel, and I have no doubt that if my name was Alejandro the reception would have been different.

People look at a sign informing them that the Statue of Liberty is closed due to a government shutdown, New York City, October 1, 2013. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The federal government can seem remote and distant for many in the USA. A woman running a diner in a small eastern Texas town – obviously intelligent and deeply knowledgeable about her area – looked completely baffled when we mentioned the shutdown. This was about a week into it. And it’s all over the papers, the radio and TV news, but some people simply don’t seem to have the time or interest for Washington’s affairs, particularly in places that Washington doesn’t have much interest in either. This is after all a country where new voting turnout highs were set during the recent midterms, with about half the eligible population casting a ballot.

And will Washington sort itself out, and find a solution to this crisis? There have been piecemeal efforts by the new Congress to pass bills to get some government functions open again, to mitigate the damage being done in the president’s absurd political theatre. It’s possible that by the time this piece is published, some sort of agreement will have been reached to reopen everything. But this one was the third government shutdown to occur in 2018, and now in 2019 is by far the longest. There’s no election in sight that would put pressure on for a quick resolution. Regardless of if and when it is resolved, the full extent of the damage might not be known for months, or even years.

And for the final piece of news that underlines the contempt Washington is displaying to the people who elected them – most lawmakers will continue to get paid during the shutdown. At least the Trump administration had the decency to temporarily suspend pay rises for top aides. There’s no such luck for federal workers generally, who will be under a pay freeze over 2019 after an executive order from President Trump. Why anyone would continue to work for the federal government if they had any other options is perhaps the biggest mystery of all of this.

Disclaimer: Alex Braae has been in the USA on holiday, and wrote this because he is a giant nerd who can’t keep away from the news. Over this period, he is not being paid by The Spinoff, and has not been paid for this piece. 

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