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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Making it through Trump's shameful and stupid shutdown

For Wilbur Ross, the fabulously wealthy and breathtakingly clueless secretary of commerce who last week said he did not understand why unpaid federal workers would need handouts from food pantries, here’s an example of how things go for the well-below-billionaire class. Here’s Deborah Rider.

She’s an Army veteran of 24 years, now a civilian employee of the U.S. Coast Guard. She works at Curtis Bay. She is single but the head of a household that includes her mother, a brother with a disability and a 9-year-old niece. Rider has a mortgage, a car payment and some other debt.

Like 800,000 other federal workers, she has not been paid in more than a month because of the foolish Trump Shutdown that ended, for the time being, on Friday afternoon.

While missing two paychecks would not be a problem for the president or for his commerce secretary — Donald J. Trump is a billionaire, and Forbes puts Ross’ net worth at $700 million, after listing him for years as a billionaire — a sudden lack of income for most Americans causes major hardship. For four decades, we have had a widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else, and, until recently, a long period of stagnant wages. With that came greater income insecurity. Estimates and surveys vary on this, but in 2017, a report from CareerBuilder found that as many as eight out of 10 American workers lived paycheck to paycheck.

Government workers probably feel more secure than most in their jobs. But that does not protect them from the consequences of an impulsive president who suddenly furloughs them when he can’t get his way with Congress.

Making matters worse, comments from Ross and other inhabitants of the Trump Swamp during the 35-day shutdown confirmed not only their lack of empathy for average workers but the complete disconnect between the current ruling class and the lives lived by most Americans. It puts the lie to the economic populism that supposedly helped Trump get elected.

The Trump Shutdown created chaos and uncertainty, damaged the economy, and caused unnecessary stress in thousands of households. And Republicans, who supposedly hate uncertainty and instability, went along with him.

“I had to be a mastermind,” Deborah Rider told me Saturday in Glen Burnie, where Maryland Food Bank volunteers handed her some fresh and canned vegetables to augment her grocery shopping. “I learned how to juggle things. The first thing I did was call my lenders; they need to hear from you. But I need to give [credit] to Navy Federal Credit Union. They said right away to federal workers, ‘We’ve got you.’ They were phenomenal.” Navy Federal cut Rider a break on her car payment and, because she was a direct deposit customer, advanced her the first pay she missed as an interest-free loan. The bank that holds her mortgage was not so helpful. But, Rider says, Navy Federal’s program helped her get by until the Trump Shutdown ended.

It’s done, but unless Congress and the White House work out a deal over Trump’s demand for a wall on the border with Mexico, we could see another shutdown next month. Who knows, with Trump?

And, excuse me, but Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland is wrong when he blames both Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for the prolonged shutdown, referring to the president and congressional leaders as “a bunch of two-year-olds.” There was only one toddler in this drama, and it was not the late Tommy D’Alesandro’s daughter.

This was one of the stupidest things ever done by anyone in the White House: Shutting down whole services of the federal government, many of them vital to the safety and health of millions of citizens, in pursuit of a wall that a majority of Americans don’t want or believe necessary.

And what happened to Trump, the vaunted businessman and deal-maker? Having inherited a growing economy from his predecessor — and he claims credit for it at every opportunity — Trump introduced the shutdown despite the obvious damage it could do to businesses.

One example I came across: Partners in Arepa Zone, a Venezuelan restaurant in Washington, hope to open a new location, possibly in Baltimore’s redeveloped Cross Street Market. But Gabriela Febres, co-owner of the business, says the government shutdown put her effort to secure financing through the Small Business Administration on hold. “Everything is on pause right now,” she said.

Another thing that gets overlooked: The demoralization of government workers. “These guys don’t give a damn about federal employees,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, said Friday, referring to Trump and those who supported his shutdown. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, there has been a sustained attack from the right on government and public employees. The Trump Shutdown was in line with that, treating government workers as serfs who don’t necessarily have to be paid every two weeks. “This was a shameful episode,” Van Hollen said.

Shameful and stupid.

drodricks@baltsun.com

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