Lessons from the Shutdown: Consequences for Attacking the Federal Workforce


The Lessons from the Shutdown Series examines the costs and consequences of the recent shutdown and debt ceiling fights. In this piece, John Hudak argues that Congressional budgeting, governance, and rhetoric create a hostile work environment for the federal workforce that has consequences for efficiency and effectiveness.

The recent government shutdown revived a common Congressional tactic: attacking the federal workforce. Federal employees become convenient punching bags for legislators trying to take out their political, policy, and personal frustrations. When a problem arises: blame a bureaucrat. When you don’t like a policy: demonize an agency. When you oppose a proposal: scare the public about federal power. When a legitimate transgression occurs within an agency: generalize the problem to every federal worker.

The attacks are hackneyed, almost always the product of hyperbole, and can have serious effects on the efficiency, effectiveness and morale of hardworking federal employees. Here are five common and unnecessary ways the workforce comes under attack.

  1. Pay Freezes
    With the exception of a last minute concession during the recent budget agreement, federal workers have faced pay freezes for the past several years. What pay freezes mean is that as costs rise, federal workers face an effective pay cut. Congress and the President argue in tough economic times, pay raises are a luxury that America cannot afford. However, the freeze has economic consequences for workers.  It creates an incentive structure where the most talented in the federal workforce—those who have the most professional appeal in the private sector—may retire or exit looking for better opportunity, leaving the bureaucracy short staffed and/or with a deficit of talent.
  2. Uncertainty
    For generations, a government job meant stability, and that stability has helped retain talented workers who could make more money in the private sector. Over the past few years, that has changed. Sequestration-induced furloughs, looming government shutdowns, actual government shutdowns, and a Congress seemingly addicted to the manufacture of fiscal crises generate profound uncertainty. Government workers faced a summer in which they were wondering how many unpaid furlough days they would face. Many workers spent 16 days barred from their offices, wondering if they would be paid. As bills piled up, an end date to the shutdown was unclear, and their financial situation became murky, Congress largely turned a blind eye to the serious plight facing the workforce.
  3. Federal Benefit Reductions
    During the government shutdown, some Republicans in Congress used federal employee benefits as ransom. I have written on this blog about the effort spearheaded by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) that sought to force Congressional staff from their current health care plans and to remove the employer contribution for their premiums. (Other proposals sought the same for the executive branch.) The result would have been an effective pay cut for those affected employees and additional economic hardship for workers already facing a period of financial uncertainty. Many argue that the Vitter Amendment—as it came to be called—and other such proposals could have led to further brain drain in the workforce, whereby the most talented and experienced staff exited the public sector for private sector opportunity.
  4. Budget Cuts (and Other Theatrics)
    For the past few years, and particularly over the past 10 months, public budgeting has been a struggle. Federal agencies have faced periods of short-term budgeting, budget freezes, and now, the budget cuts from sequestration. Each poses serious challenges. First, short-term budgeting, brought on by reliance on continuing resolutions for periods of only months, leaves federal managers facing serious uncertainty about their future funding. When managers are unsure about the level of funding they will have, it presents profound challenges for project planning, organization, and overall management. Budgetary foresight carries with it critical, cost-reducing efficiencies.


    Similarly, budget freezes and (sequestration) cuts pose other challenges. From year to year, demands on federal agencies often grow—as does the cost of doing business. With cuts and freezes, federal agencies are asked to do more with less. Their ability to meet demands is severely limited. It should be noted, those demands come in part from Congress and the President, but also from citizens who rely every day on their government to deliver critical services.

  5. Rhetorical Attacks

    Speeches condemning federal workers are commonplace on the floors of the House and Senate, on campaign trails, and in TV advertisements. Federal workers are consistently demonized for doing their job—in all cases the job Congress authorizes. Whether attacks are as blunt as calling federal workers lazy, overpaid, nameless and faceless, inefficient, unaccountable or are more subtle, they sting. Federal worker morale takes a hit, and the attacks generate in society a harshly negative view of the bureaucrat. Members of Congress, especially Republican members, are among the most frequent critics of the federal workforce. One example is a March 2011 hearing from the Federal Workforce Subcommittee of House Oversight. It was titled, “Are Federal Workers Underpaid?” However, the tone of the hearing asked if federal workers are overpaid. That rhetoric is not reserved for the titles of committee hearings. A few pointed examples from the Congressional Record:

        Bureaucrats are Wasteful

    “When Federal bureaucrats abuse their power and waste taxpayer money, liberty is eroded…” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), July 25, 2013.

         Bureaucrats Threaten Health

    “The law…too often put(s) Federal bureaucrats, instead of doctors and patients in charge of health care decision making.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), July 31, 2012.

        Bureaucrats Lack Expertise

    “We can’t allow Federal bureaucrats, many of who have never set foot on a farm to tell Iowa farm families how they can run their operation.” Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), July 24, 2012.

        Bureaucrats Hurt the Economy

    “This country could be booming right now, but it is being held back by Federal bureaucrats who have little or no business experience…” Rep. John J. Duncan (R-TN) July 13, 2011.

        Bureaucrats are Job Killers

            “Our job creators are under attack by Federal bureaucrats, who are bringing
             out all these regulations every single day to kill jobs.” Rep. Steve Scalise, 
             (R-LA) March 2, 2011.


    The result of this is a type of hostile work environment, making federal work less appealing. Attacking the bureaucrats may deflect blame from the legislature, win votes in elections, and raise campaign funds; it also affects worker morale which can have serious consequences for efficiency and effectiveness.

When problems, inefficiencies, and breakdowns happen within government, people look at which political appointee or bureaucrat or contractor they can blame or they heap blame on the whole bureaucracy. Rarely do people consider how behaviors in Congress affect both federal workers and their ability to do their jobs. Government workers are not perfect nor above reproach. However, the solution to problems in the workforce or within agencies is not to assume every worker is problematic, challenge every bureaucrat’s integrity, or construct barriers to efficiency. The solution is to foster a workplace that promotes effectiveness and offers the resources that allow managers to achieve efficiency. Stopping the demonization of the federal workforce would be a good start.