Amer­ica has a se­cu­rity cri­sis, but it’s not on the bor­der

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - OPINION -

For all his talk about a sup­posed national se­cu­rity cri­sis on the bor­der with Mex­ico, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ig­nor­ing the po­ten­tial cri­sis the fed­eral shutdown is cre­at­ing else­where in the coun­try.

Trump has es­sen­tially taken nine fed­eral de­part­ments and dozens of fed­eral agen­cies hostage in an ef­fort to co­erce Congress into spend­ing $5.7 bil­lion on the big­ger, longer bor­der wall he promised on the cam­paign trail to build (sup­pos­edly at Mex­ico’s ex­pense, but now on the U.S. tax­pay­ers’ tab). Vi­tal gov­ern­ment ser­vices and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are be­ing sac­ri­ficed in the po­lit­i­cal stand­off, and there’s no end in sight.

In some cases, the shutdown is mak­ing com­mu­ni­ties less safe.

The west­ern United States has ex­pe­ri­enced a se­ries of cat­a­strophic fires in re­cent years, yet much of the preven­tion work needed to re­duce the risk is on hold dur­ing the shutdown. Fire­fighter hir­ing and train­ing is frozen, as are con­tracts for equip­ment and air­craft. The U.S. For­est Ser­vice has suspended con­trolled burns of dead tim­ber and dry brush, steps that are de­signed to re­duce the fuel and in­ten­sity of fu­ture wild­fires. This is all es­sen­tial work that can be done only dur­ing the in­creas­ingly short off-sea­son, and stop­ping those ef­forts leaves both fire­fight­ing agen­cies and wild­land com­mu­ni­ties less pre­pared.

There are sim­i­lar prob­lems across fed­eral agen­cies, as the lengthy shutdown ex­ac­er­bates ex­ist­ing chal­lenges. There’s already a short­age of air traf­fic con­trollers across the avi­a­tion sys­tem, and the shutdown has suspended train­ing of new ones. Con­trollers cur­rently on the job are re­quired to work with­out pay, adding an­other anx­i­ety to an already stress­ful job of manag­ing the na­tion’s airspace.

National parks are be­ing trashed and tram­pled by visi­tors while park ser­vice em­ploy­ees are fur­loughed. Se­cu­rity lines at air­ports are get­ting longer as Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion work­ers, who are re­quired to work with­out pay, have be­gun calling in sick in large num­bers. And some low-in­come renters who rely on fed­eral hous­ing could face evic­tion after rental as­sis­tance con­tracts ex­pired on Jan. 1, be­cause the De­part­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment can’t re­new them un­til the gov­ern­ment re­opens.

These are ba­sic func­tions of gov­ern­ment — pro­tect­ing res­i­dents and pub­lic as­sets. They should not be chips in a high-stakes po­lit­i­cal poker game.

There surely were per­sonal crises Fri­day when more than 800,000 fed­eral work­ers at shut­tered agen­cies did not get paid. That in­cludes the work­ers who have been idled by fur­loughs and “es­sen­tial” em­ploy­ees who have been re­quired even though there’s no money to pay them. Also los­ing out are a slew of con­trac­tors that pro­vide goods and ser­vices to fed­eral agen­cies and the agen­cies’ cus­tomers.

Many Amer­i­cans live pay­check to pay­check, and fed­eral work­ers are no ex­cep­tion. One missed pay­check — for­go­ing wages for half the month — can be dev­as­tat­ing for fam­i­lies in fi­nan­cially pre­car­i­ous po­si­tions. How are these peo­ple sup­posed to pay the rent, their util­ity bills or their car pay­ments?

Even those who do have a fi­nan­cial cush­ion could be in for trou­ble, es­pe­cially if the shutdown drags on for months or years, as Trump has warned could hap­pen if Democrats do not agree to his de­mands to fund a big­ger bor­der wall.

For some fed­eral work­ers, fi­nan­cial trou­bles trig­gered by missed pay­checks could im­peril their ca­reers. The union for Fed­eral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion agents warned in a let­ter to Congress that agents un­dergo rou­tine fi­nan­cial back­ground checks to en­sure that they are fi­nan­cially sta­ble and re­spon­si­ble. Miss­ing a pay­ment could slow or block an agent’s clear­ance.

Trump has been dis­mis­sive of fed­eral work­ers’ con­cerns, although he did pledge Thurs­day to sign a bill pro­vid­ing them back pay should the shutdown ever end.

“I’m sure that the peo­ple that are on the re­ceiv­ing end will make ad­just­ments,” he said over the week­end when asked if he could re­late to work­ers who couldn’t pay their bills.

The longer the shutdown drags on, fed­eral work­ers — and the peo­ple who rely on their ser­vices — will have to “make ad­just­ments.” Fed­eral em­ploy­ees will have to man­age their own fi­nan­cial panic, while the broader pub­lic will watch as the national parks de­te­ri­o­rate, air travel slows, fed­eral forests go un­main­tained and the fed­eral safety net for the na­tion’s most vul­ner­a­ble frays.

All this for a wall that is rich in ex­clu­sion­ary sym­bol­ism but un­likely to have much ef­fect on the prob­lems Trump says he’s try­ing to solve, such as hu­man traf­fick­ing and drug smug­gling. There is most cer­tainly a cri­sis un­der­way. It’s a cri­sis of con­fi­dence in the pres­i­dency of the United States.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/TNS

On the 20th day of a par­tial gov­ern­ment shutdown, fur­loughed fed­eral work­ers, con­trac­tors and union rep­re­sen­ta­tives gath­ered be­fore march­ing to the White House to de­mand that Pres­i­dent Trump re­open the gov­ern­ment on Jan. 10.

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