The final days of 2018 saw a perplexing trifecta of events affecting our country’s federal workforce. The government shutdown, affecting the pay of about 800,000 federal employees, headed into its third week. In the middle of that shutdown, the president bragged about giving a nonexistent 10 percent pay raise to the military during a surprise visit to service members deployed overseas. Soon after returning from that trip, the president issued an order halting automatic pay raises for civilian federal workers in 2019, noting the need to “maintain efforts to put our Nation on a sustainable fiscal course.”
The message to the furloughed government employees (as well as those whose jobs are deemed “essential” and are still required to report to work without pay) is clear: You don’t matter because you’re not in the military.
I proudly served in the military and have written about the distinct honor of representing my country while in uniform and the risks of serving in harm’s way to defend its interests abroad. But I also fervently believe that national service doesn’t require a military uniform. There will always be instances of unwise government spending — as there are in any large organization — and I encourage and applaud efforts to reduce waste, redundancy and inefficiency. But the anti-government sentiment underlying the president’s order to not increase the pay of federal employees unjustly vilifies them as a drain on the economy, while ignoring the important work they provide to their fellow citizens.
In his new book, “The Fifth Risk,” author Michael Lewis describes the importance of little-known functions of federal agencies inside the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce and Energy. These range from providing food aid to our neediest citizens to monitoring the disposal, storage and security of nuclear waste. It may not be particularly glamorous work, but if it’s not done, people go hungry and hazardous material can pollute our environment — or worse, fall into the hands of nefarious actors. Every other federal agency provides some form of similarly unknown yet vital function to keep the system of services flowing to the country’s citizens and residents, dutifully managed by the employees of those agencies.
Some federal employees work for the National Park Service or the Smithsonian Institution, ensuring that vacationing travelers can enjoy the natural wonders of our country or its impressive galleries over the holidays. Government doctors and scientists spend their days in labs, analyzing troves of data to prevent epidemics or mitigate the effects of calamitous weather conditions. Other federal employees may toil away at a cubicle processing tax returns or Social Security checks, ensuring their fellow citizens receive necessary entitlement benefits in a timely fashion. In embassies and consulates around the world, government employees work to promote the institutions of democracy and assist U.S. expatriates and travelers in need while abroad. In all instances, they embody the concept of service to their nation and its citizens.
Before the president’s order, federal employees were expecting a pay increase of 2.1 percent from their 2018 salary. This is a modest increase for a workforce whose salary typically lags that of their civilian counterparts by as much as 31 percent, and is less than the 2.6 percent increase authorized for our nation’s uniformed service members in the most recent defense spending bill, enacted in the summer of 2018. The military’s pay raise was its largest in a decade, and I commend the president and Congress for authorizing this increase for our nation’s service members, who I feel are equally underpaid compared with the private sector.
But there are about 2 million Americans who work for a federal agency, roughly the same number of Americans who serve in the military. Their work may not invoke images of a nail-biting Hollywood thriller full of gunfights, explosions and heroes saving the day while facing death-defying odds. But they are heroic in their own unsung way. Among other things, their work keeps our food safe, our lights on, our parks and museums open and our borders secure. In short, they serve, and they deserve the gratitude of their fellow Americans for their service — and a 2.1 percent pay increase in 2019.
Gus Biggio served as a Marine in Afghanistan in 2009.