Shutdown becomes longest ever as Trump holds out for his wall

America Letter: Government workers told to stay home as there is no guarantee of pay

Federal workers and contractors rally against the partial federal government shutdown. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Arriving back to Washington DC last weekend, the queues in Dulles Airport were longer than usual.

The capital’s main international airport seemed to creak under the pressure of returning families, corporate travellers and transit passengers passing through the hub.

Like many airports across the country, Dulles is feeling the effects of the government shutdown. Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) officials and federal aviation workers are among those who have been affected by the part-closure of the federal government since December 22nd.

Squeezing into my Uber amid the rows of jostling taxis outside the main arrivals terminal, talk soon turned to the shutdown.


Tariq, my driver, explained that he doesn’t usually drive taxis for a living. He works for the department of homeland security (DHS).

I don't know if I'll get paid next Friday, so I have to make other arrangements

Originally from Pakistan, he moved to the United States 30 years ago. He was employed by the DHS, which was set up in the wake of the September 11th attacks, because of his language skills.

“Farsi is my first language but I also speak Hindi, Arabic, Pashto,” he explained in his still heavily accented English.

I imagined what kind of activities he may have been involved in through his work for the agency in the years after 9/11. As the Washington skyline came into view, he said that he had spent the weekend driving Uber cabs to make some extra money.

“I don’t know if I’ll get paid next Friday, so I have to make other arrangements. My wife doesn’t work, I have four children at different stages, including one at college. It’s difficult.”

Tariq is one of thousands of government workers who have been impacted by the government shutdown that began almost three weeks ago.

National Mall: Rubbish lies uncollected due to the partial shutdown of the US government in Washington, DC. Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP

Missed paycheques

About 800,000 government workers have been affected, about half of whom have been “furloughed” – told to stay at home because there is no guarantee they will be paid.

While ultimately they expect to receive back-pay, as was the case with previous shutdowns, thousands of contractors who work for the federal government will not.

Further missed paycheques this week will mean that mortgages, bills and loan repayments will not be paid, not to mention the impact on consumer spending.

Washington DC is the region most affected by the shutdown. About 360,000 federal workers live around the greater DC area and the neighbouring states of Virginia and Maryland. About 145,000 of those have been furloughed.

Sandwich shops and delis, which are usually filled with government workers and the stream of lobbyists that do business in the city, were less busy than usual

The capital city was eerily quiet this week despite the legislative activity going on in Capitol Hill and the White House.

The world-famous network of Smithsonian museums which line the National Mall were closed, disappointing visiting tourists and depriving local businesses of much-needed revenue.

The DC city council has begun to help pick up trash from federal lands across the city.

Sandwich shops and delis, which are usually filled with government workers and the stream of lobbyists that do business in the city, were less busy than usual. Gyms were offering special rates to drop-in customers who could show a government ID.

Serious implications

The impact of the shutdown is also becoming increasingly serious as government agencies curtail their work.

The Food and Drug Administration has scaled back routine inspections of food, a major risk for the nation's food supply. Key employees in the Environmental Protection Agency have also ceased working, raising concerns about oversight at chemical and waste management plants.

Employees of the US Coast Guard were told this week in a letter by the coast guard support programme to consider holding a garage sale or start babysitting or dog-sitting to get by without pay if needed.

US president Donald Trump speaks while holding a photograph of a border wall during a roundtable discussion on border security at the White House in Washington, DC on January 11th. Judges, law enforcement officers, NASA engineers, weather forecasters and office staff were among some 800,000 federal workers who missed their first paychecks on Friday as a result of the ongoing shutdown Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

The FBI agents' association has written to Congress and the White House urging an end to the shutdown as their workers continue to report for duty.

With the shutdown this weekend now the longest ever, a compromise over border funding – the key stumbling block in the negotiation – seems as far off as ever.

It looks increasingly possible that the president will use his presidential authority and invoke a national emergency to bypass Congress and build his wall.

With lengthy legal challenges then likely, it is possible that the wall may still not be built when Trump hits the campaign trail in 2020.

But that may be just the way he likes it. Having someone else to blame for not building his wall, three years after he promised it, may be just the message Trump needs when he faces his supporters.