Two senior Trump administration officials made comments Thursday that opened them up to criticism that they were displaying Marie Antoinette-style callousness to the plight of federal workers struggling to get by without their paychecks.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, in an interview with CNBC, suggested that unpaid federal workers can take out low-interest loans to get them through this extended period when they’re missing paychecks.
Asked about reports that some federal workers are going to homeless shelters to get food, Ross, who has a net worth estimated to be in the hundreds of millions and who heads a department with more than 40,000 employees directly affected by the shutdown, said:
“I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why because as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake — say borrowing from a bank or credit union — are in effect federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that people will be out — there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it and we’ve seen a number of ads from the financial institutions doing that.”
Ross also downplayed the economic effects of the shutdown and federal workers not getting paid and said it was “kind of disappointing” that so many air traffic controllers are calling in sick.
Ross’s comments drew immediate criticism from Democrats. “Is this the ‘let them eat cake’ kind of attitude?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. “Or call your father for money?”
Also on Thursday, Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, told reporters that federal workers are “volunteering” during the shutdown because of their love for the country and “presumably their allegiance to President Trump.” Asked by a reporter how it’s volunteering if the workers are being forced to work without pay and face losing their jobs if they don’t show up, Kudlow reportedly dismissed the question as a “semantic game.”
Kudlow also expressed confidence that the shutdown would prove to be “just a glitch” and that any deleterious effects would go away in a “nanosecond” once the government reopens. But some other economists are expressing increasing concern that the extended shutdown could have longer-lasting economic impact.
“This shutdown has gone on longer than any other so you have to worry about what you might call second-order effects,” Brian Rose, senior economist for the Americas at UBS Global Wealth Management, told Bloomberg. “Things we didn't have to worry about in previous shutdowns are starting to crop up, like some federal workers quitting. So, this is going to be a hockey stick pattern, not a straight line. The impact will get worse and worse the longer it continues.”
Why it matters: The comments add to the perception that Trump administration officials, from the president to his key economic advisers on down, simply don’t grasp the financial insecurity many Americans face. That damages Trump’s case for the shutdown, to the extent that the battle is a messaging fight as well, but it also may skew the administration’s strategy. As New York magazine columnist Josh Barro writes, “The failure of perspective that has led top Trump administration officials to make tone-deaf comments about how the government shutdown affects federal workers is the same failure of perspective that has led them to underestimate the political costs they have imposed on themselves by prolonging the shutdown.”
The politics at play: “The fact that Trump admin officials feel the need to downplay the pain people are suffering from the shutdown is a pretty good indicator that they recognize where the blame is likely to end up,” The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake tweeted. “If you think Dems will shoulder it, you say, ‘Yes, it's awful.’"