Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith sought to put a human face Friday on the effects of the partial shutdown of the federal government.
Flanked by a handful of federal employees, Smith held a news conference at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to denounce the political stalemate in Washington that has prevented passage of a federal budget for 21 days, causing many workers to miss their first paycheck this week.
“This shutdown is wasteful, it is unnecessary, and it is increasingly harmful to so many people,” said Smith, a Democrat. She said she’s heard from “dozens and dozens” of people whose lives have been disrupted by the shutdown.
“I’ve heard from Minnesota farmers who haven’t been able to process their checks because they can’t get their checks endorsed by the Department of Agriculture. I’ve heard from small businesses and just Americans who haven’t been able to get their work done. And I’ve heard a lot from federal contract workers who don’t have a process in place to get paid when this shutdown is over, and this is completely unfair,” she said.
“And then, of course, we have the federal workers themselves who have essentially been held hostage by this shutdown.”
Smith read from a handwritten letter sent to her by Joseph Daskalakis, a Minneapolis air traffic controller. The letter included a photograph of his son, Oliver, who was born 10 weeks early on New Year’s Eve. He was under the care of a hospital outside of his medical insurance network. Ordinarily, he could change insurance companies to get coverage, Daskalakis wrote, but he was unable to do so because those government services were closed by the shutdown.
“I don’t know when I’ll be able to change my insurance, or when I’ll get paid again,” Daskalakis said. “Please do what you can to reopen the government and leave us with one less worry.”
Smith said the shutdown could end now if Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would bring forward a package of bills that have been passed with bipartisan support to fund the government.
The Minnesota Republican Party issued a statement this week blaming the shutdown on Democrats because they refuse to fund a wall between Mexico and the United States.
“While Democrats are busy playing politics at the expense of our nation’s security, President [Donald] Trump is committed to securing our borders and enforcing our immigration laws,” the statement said.
The GOP-controlled U.S. Senate had approved legislation in December to temporarily fund the government but without including money for Trump’s border wall request. After Democrats took control of the House on Jan. 3, they passed a bill to reopen some of the government, also without funding for a wall. But McConnell, the GOP Senate majority leader, now refuses to give a bill without wall funding a hearing.
Gregg James, regional vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said employees have their own views about the border wall funding, but they’re united on the issue of funding their government. He said he’s hearing stories from employees who have to decide between buying prescription drugs or paying their utilities.
“This is just not something we can adjust to, missing a complete paycheck,” James said. “And it’s not fair that we’re required to show up to work and get no pay.”
James said federal employees understand the need for border security and noted the irony that border patrol agents are required to work without pay because of the shutdown.
“We hope for a political solution on this, but mostly we just want the government open so our members can start collecting their pay, take care of their families, put food on the table, pay for day care, put gas in their tanks to get to work.”
Celia Hahn, local president of the union representing airport security screeners, said her colleagues are among the lowest-paid federal employees and many live paycheck to paycheck. Hahn said she has been through other shutdowns in her 16 years with the Transportation Security Agency, but they didn’t last long.
“This shutdown is different. This shutdown is taking the paychecks out of the pockets of thousands of employees,” she said.
Regardless of the politics, most people would agree that employees shouldn’t have to work without getting paid, Hahn said.
“The federal employees must not be used as bargaining chips in disagreements between our congressional leaders,” she said.
Garret White, a corrections officer at the federal prison in Sandstone, Minn., said he’s the primary provider for a family of seven.
“There’s no income coming in,” White said, adding that it is increasing the stress he feels in an already stressful environment.
Brian Garthwaite, a compliance officer in Minneapolis for the Food and Drug Administration, said he and his colleagues are in a bind because they can’t even get approval from an ethics officer to get another job while the shutdown continues.
“There’s nobody there,” Garthwaite said.
One FDA compliance officer was out of the country on assignment when the shutdown took place. When he got back, Garthwaite said, he couldn’t file his payment voucher to be reimbursed. Yet if he doesn’t pay his credit card company on time, his credit score could be damaged.
“This is an upheaval. It’s not an adjustment,” Garthwaite said.
Smith blamed the budget impasse on President Donald Trump. She said that when senators passed a bill in December to fund the government through February, Trump indicated he’d support it.
“Then he changed his mind,” she said. He demanded $5.7 billion for his proposed border wall funding and refuses to budge. The Democrats similarly refuse to give him money for the wall.
Smith said if Trump carries out his threat of declaring a national emergency to get the money to build a wall, it might remove an impediment to passing a budget to fund the government.
“But I do think there are going to be lots of questions raised about whether he has the power to do that,” she said.