You don’t solve problems by taking hostages

I’m not sure you can get Republicans and Democrats to agree on many things these days – not even on motherhood and apple pie.

Some people believe a wall along the border with Mexico is a national security priority and is necessary to stop the movement of migrants into the United States. Others think the $5 billion at the center of the border wall dispute could be better spent on additional border agents, more drones and sophisticated new security technology.

Each of us has an opinion in this debate. But we all should be able to agree on this one point: It is absolutely wrong to hold the paychecks of 800,000 innocent employees of the federal government hostage during this stalemate.

It’s just as wrong as if North Korea, Russia or China took American visitors hostage and demanded the U.S. government take certain action before the hostages would be freed. It’s not much different from a kidnapper in Des Moines grabbing a hostage off the street and demanding ransom in return for the victim’s freedom.

Congress and the president should agree to reopen the government while they continue to hash out a resolution to the border funding dispute. If they refuse to open the government back up, I would ask members of Congress why their paychecks are sacrosanct and why those are still getting deposited while 800,000 employees are being forced to work with only a promise that they will be paid on some unknown day in the future.

Yes, I’m referring to you, Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst and Steve King. You gladly accepted your paychecks last Friday. And yes, this includes you, Abby Finkenauer, who was sworn in as a new member of the House earlier this month. She said she might forego part of her salary. But her colleagues, Cindy Axne and Dave Loebsack, both said they would not accept any pay while the shutdown continues.

Ernst has been the most tone deaf on this question of congressional paychecks. “We do continue to work here in the Senate, and so, yes, I am taking a paycheck at this time,” she told reporters last week.

Is Ernst’s work and her belief that she’s entitled to be paid promptly any different from the expectations of 800,000 federal workers that they, too, should be paid on time for their work --- so they can use their wages to pay their rent, utility bills, groceries and child care?

Yes, the congressional offices are open, and Grassley, Ernst, King and the others had meetings to attend, calls to make, letters to sign, and press releases to issue.

But those air traffic controllers who are not being paid on time had planes to guide safely. Those Transportation Security Administration agents at the nation’s airports had passengers and luggage to screen.

Coast Guard members still had patrols to make and ports to watch over. Customs and Border Patrol officers still had the northern and southern borders to keep an eye on and cars and trucks crossing from Mexico and Canada to inspect for contraband.

There are thousands of FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents still on the job, even though their paychecks are not there. The Food and Drug Administration has stopped its inspections of food processing facilities. (Think: salmonella and e coli.)

The E-Verify system, which employers use to screen workers to make sure they are in this country legally, has been closed down indefinitely. And the immigration courts are dark and those judges are not ruling on the backlog of cases of immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

It’s wrong to force employees to work and not pay them on time. Common sense says the government has a legal obligation to these workers, and it is maddening the president and Republicans in Congress don’t understand this.

If this tactic of holding government workers and their pay hostage proves successful, we shouldn’t be surprised if the next president decides that’s the way to get Congress to meet one of his or her unpopular demands.

It would be just as wrong for a Democratic president to use a government shutdown and employee hostages to force Congress to approve a ban on selling assault rifles or to approve Medicare for all Americans.

When our founding fathers wrote the Constitution 232 years ago, they laid out in specific detail how bills become a law. Nothing in the seven articles or 27 amendments authorizes holding government employees’ paychecks hostage.

That fact tells you all you need to know about this mess Congress and the president have created.

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Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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