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Op/Ed: With its vote on paying federal workers, Congress just ducked accountability

by Reps. Thomas Massie and Chip Roy

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel once said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

Congressmen who loath accountability surely heeded his advice this week when drafting S. 24 to deal with the government shutdown crisis.

Last Friday, the Democrats, under a suspension of the rules, abruptly added this bill to the House calendar. Sold as routine legislation to pay furloughed workers when the shutdown ends, this bill sailed through by a vote of 411 to seven. We were two of the seven who voted against this bill. Let us explain why.

Was it because we don’t think people should work for pay? Absolutely not. As conservatives, we are adamant that the government shouldn’t be able to force anyone to do anything, and that includes working without pay.

If it were up to us, a shutdown would be a true shutdown. Neither air traffic controllers nor Transportation Security Administration employees would be required to work without pay. In a real shutdown, they’d stay home, and within 24 hours, Democrats and Republicans would be forced to come to a deal.

Instead, we have this drawn-out affair in which the federal government postures as if it were in a full shutdown, while simultaneously relying on unpaid federal workers to relieve what would otherwise be serious pressure on politicians to solve a crisis of their own making. This is wrong.

Given that our fellow politicians insist on abusing the goodwill and dedication of federal workers by making them work without pay, we certainly would have voted to pay them when the shutdown ends. In fact, when we heard that we were going to vote on a bill that would supposedly do just that, we were planning to vote for it. Then we read the bill.

The bill guarantees back pay for essential employees who worked and are still working without pay. That’s the most admirable part of the bill and the only part that the media ever talk about. But the bill also guarantees full pay for nonessential employees who weren’t called to work during the shutdown.

The notion of paying people for work they didn’t do isn’t exactly conservative, but it’s not the fault of these employees that they couldn’t work. So we were ready to accept that we would pay them. No problem so far.

The fundamental flaw, or feature if you like unaccountable government, with S. 24 is that it guaranteed back pay for everyone at the end of every shutdown in the future.

Why is this a problem? Well, two-thirds of federal spending is what we call mandatory, which means it issues from the Treasury whether Congress acts or not. Only one-third, called discretionary spending, is subject to annual congressional appropriations. It’s the unattended mandatory spending that poses the greatest threat to our nation’s solvency.

Because S. 24 guarantees that every employee of the federal government, working or not, in every circumstance in the future, will be paid in full, the bill effectively moves the entire federal payroll from the discretionary side of the ledger to the mandatory side of the ledger. Yet despite this, it still requires federal workers to go without pay until the end of any future shutdown.

So S. 24 removes some of Congress’ constitutional power to obligate or not obligate taxpayer dollars. That’s dangerous, given our ballooning debt. What’s worse, by guaranteeing back pay at the end of all shutdowns, S. 24 gives politicians political cover during every future shutdown. This will further encourage politicians to score political points by engaging in more partial shutdowns, which cost money while depriving citizens of services.

Finally, the bill doesn’t even solve the moral dilemma of forcing workers to forego timely paychecks.

Nothing in politics happens by mistake. S. 24 passed on the same day it was introduced in the House. The Swamp, which abhors accountability, scored a permanent victory using the crisis of the current shutdown without actually solving the shutdown and without giving any federal worker a single paycheck. America deserves better.

Thomas Massie represents Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District. Chip Roy represents Texas’ 21st Congressional District. Both are Republicans.

Originally posted on The Examiner. 

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