It was a terrifying couple of hours on Capitol Hill. An apparently mentally troubled woman, after trying to breach security at the White House with her car, sped up to the Hill. There, she was chased by Capitol police, who feared she was about to attack the Capitol. She was stopped when she was fatally shot by police.
Shaken legislators, who have been in a stubborn standoff over the budget and the debt ceiling, rose to their feet in the House chamber to give a standing ovation to the Capitol police for acting so quickly. It was a rare show of unity in a building where people can't even agree on what they should be arguing about.
Here's one way to thank the Capitol police: how about paying them for coming to work?
Under the government shut-down, hundreds of thousands of government workers across the country have been furloughed, and it's not assured that they will receive back pay when the government does begin running again. Some workers are declared "essential," and are required to be at work. But they're not getting a paycheck, and won't get one until a deal is made and they get back pay.
Waiting to receive your paycheck might be doable for some Americans – the proverbial 1 percent, to be sure, and even members of Congress, who (except for some who have voluntarily given up their salaries during the shutdown) are still being paid. But many, many Americans don't have the cash reserves to skip a few paychecks – or even one – and manage to pay mortgages or rent and buy groceries. A Bankrate.com survey this summer, in fact, showed that 76 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and 27 percent have no savings at all.
There's a tired old joke about government workers being useless and lazy, and that attitude is displayed in the comments of those who hate government of any kind and see any kind of federal worker as some drain on their own personal finances. Yet the math makes no sense, when it comes to comparisons between the public sector and the private sector. Wall Street executives – the people under fire for taking risks that resulted in a near-meltdown of the U.S. and global economy in 2008 and 2009 – make millions of dollars a year. Some got bonuses even in the aftermath of the fiscal debacle. The highest-paid government worker is the president of the United States, who makes $400,000 a year, plus housing.
You think government workers are coddled? An entry-level, GS-1 federal worker makes a little more than $22,000 a year. Those are the people considered non-essential during a shutdown, and those are the people least likely to have a financial cushion to get them through it.
And Capitol Police? Their starting salary is $55,653, according to their website. These are the people who guided people out of the Capitol on 9-11, when it was feared one of the planes was headed to the Hill. These are the people who lost two of their own in 1998, after a gunman burst into the Capitol and started shooting. The police don't get to refuse to come into work. In the weeks after 9-11, they were doing mandatory 12-hour days and 6-day weeks. And now, they are working for no pay. It's a measure of their tremendous commitment that they didn't hesitate at all to protect the lives of the people who can't agree on a plan that would pay the officers' salaries.
Government workers aren't a late-night comic's punchline, or a sterile budget item. They're people. They have bills, and they have families. Thursday's episode reminded Washington of that.