Arkansas congressmen decry not paying workers
Written by: Frank Lockwood
Published by: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Steve Womack says he’d support legislation requiring prompt payment for federal employees whenever they are declared essential and required to work.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman agrees, saying it’s unconscionable to make people work and not pay them. Neither lawmaker would hazard a guess as to when the partial shutdown of the federal government will end.
Womack, a Republican from Rogers, said he’s received letters from Fort Smith air traffic controllers who help keep the skies safe but can’t pay their bills.
“Personally I think that anybody who is deemed essential and is working should be compensated. Period,” the former Rogers mayor said. “It’s not American to ask people to do something and not compensate them for it. I’m of the opinion that we need to get this behind us and move on.”
President Donald Trump has refused to reopen the government until Democrats provide $5.7 billion in funding for his border wall project. Democrats say they’re willing to negotiate once the shutdown ends.
With the government partially shut down and furloughed federal employees about to miss another round of paychecks, more than 100 representatives and senators have announced that they plan to forgo their salaries until the standoff is resolved, according to CNN.
Some plan to donate the money to charity. Others, including Westerman of Hot Springs and U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock, have instructed congressional payroll officials to withhold their money until the lapse in funding ends.
Hill was one of the first to defer his salary, informing House Chief Administrative Officer Phil Kiko of his decision on Dec. 22, the day the shutdown began.
“I cannot in good faith accept my pay when our federal employees will not receive theirs,” he wrote.
Westerman sent a letter Wednesday, instructing Kiko to withhold his salary “until the lapse in appropriations ends.”
Rank-and-file members of the U.S. House of Representatives make $174,000 per year and are paid monthly. They are to be paid at the end of this month, their first payday since checks started being withheld from roughly 800,000 federal workers.
Westerman said he doesn’t want to take money while other federal workers are going unpaid.
“I think it’s morally wrong to ask somebody to work and not give them pay,” he said in an interview Thursday. “If somebody is deemed essential, we should find a way to pay them while they’re working.”
In an interview, Hill said it’s inappropriate to withhold pay from Americans who are “on the front lines of protecting our country, whether they are border patrol agents or Coast Guardsmen.”
Deferring his pay “was something I wanted to do to show solidarity with the men and women who aren’t being paid who represent us and do our work for the taxpayers,” he said.
Asked about lawmakers deferring their salaries, Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Michael John Gray said:
“They’re obviously not in the same position as other federal workers that have to worry about rent or day care or essential food and medical needs, so it’s a little easier for them to defer their checks . … I’ll at least commend them for the gesture.”
Hill, Westerman and Womack said Republicans have been trying to pass legislation so that paychecks to essential employees can resume. They blamed Democrats for blocking their efforts.
Democrats in Congress portray Trump as the obstacle to progress.
After wrapping up business Thursday, many lawmakers hurried to airports and boarded flights home.
Westerman said he knows many of the Transportation Security Administration employees at the Little Rock airport who continue to labor, despite not being paid.
“Obviously they’re not happy about working and not getting paid, and I don’t blame them for that. I think they do realize they eventually will get paid but that doesn’t help with the immediate cash flow problem,” he said.
Because of the shutdown, now in its 35th day, even the Transportation Security Administration water cooler has run dry, he said.
“They can’t go buy new water jugs because the [government] credit card doesn’t work,” Westerman said.
At his district office in Hot Springs, housed inside a National Park Service building, he encounters law enforcement officials and maintenance people who continue to work despite receiving no pay.
“These are real people that are being affected,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro, said the shutdown is hurting too many people in northeastern Arkansas and across the country.
“Our border patrol [agents] need to be paid. Our TSA agents need to be paid. Our [Drug Enforcement Administration] agents need to be paid. All these people under the [Department of Homeland Security] umbrella need to be paid. Our folks in the [Internal Revenue Service], our folks at [the U.S. Department of Agriculture], our folks in the Commerce Department, our folks in the Interior, they all need to be paid because they’re doing the work,” he said.
If the shutdown drags on long enough, patience will eventually run out, Westerman said.
If Transportation Security Administration workers or air traffic controllers grow sufficiently impatient, “I think that would have a dramatic impact on how much longer the shutdown would last,” he said.
“If they decide they’ve had enough and quit doing their job, I think that’s going to escalate everything,” he said.
Crawford expressed hope that the stalemate will end. But for that to happen, there needs to be give and take, he said.
“Compromise isn’t a dirty word,” he said.
That’s an approach Democratic congressional leaders should embrace, he said.
“In this case, I think the obstructionist is purely Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi,” he added.
“Mrs. Pelosi has just absolutely dug her heels in,” he said.
Gray, the state Democratic chairman, says there’s plenty of blame on both sides of the partisan divide.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s Washington at its worst. It’s why people are tired of Washington,” he said. “Representative democracy is compromise, it’s getting things done. All they’re doing in Washington is getting nothing done and blaming it on the other guy.”