Really, Really Unessential Government Personnel

90 percent of DoD civilians will go back to work soon. What message does that send?


Checking my Twitter feed yesterday while attending an academic conference in DC, quite possibly in violation of the terms of my furlough from the federal government, I got word that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had ordered most DoD civilians back to work. The memorandum outlining the order is rather vague, in that it orders subordinate commanders to decide which workers come back, but the comptroller expects “more than 90 percent” of us to be recalled to duty. How long it will take and whether I’m among that 90 percent remains unclear, although I expect that I’ll back back at work no later than mid-week.

As I noted Thursday, Republican Congressional leaders, including Speaker of the House John Boehner and HASC Chairman Buck McKeon had urged Hagel to do this last Tuesday. The delay was a function of the Pentagon making sure they had the legal authority to do this, deciding how far the authority extended, and, one presumes, getting buy-in from a president who both wants to get as many people back to work as soon as possible and yet understands that doing so for the most visible workers reduces pressure on Congressional Republicans to give in on the shutdown generally.

Two thoughts occur to me here.

First, there’s something extremely awkward about calling back 90 percent of your civilian workforce. Under the earlier sequestration furloughs (which occurred before I entered federal service) and this past week’s shutdown furloughs, there was at least the solidarity that came with virtually everyone being declared “unessential.” Indeed, there were constant jokes at the conference from those of us who teach at professional military education programs, Congressional Research Service researchers, and other furloughed employees who traveled on our own dimes about our shared fate. Now, though, we’re going to have a relative handful of our ranks who are going to be declared not only “unessential” but told that they do not “contribute to the morale, well-being, capabilities and readiness of service members.” That’s a morale killer.

Second, as noted in my previous post, I’m uncomfortable with the process whereby we slowly un-furlough government employees on the basis of the visibility of our jobs to the American public. I’ll be happy to get back to work preparing the nation’s field grade officers for service in senior command and staff assignments. But the non-Defense and non-law enforcement workers who will remain furloughed are also in jobs created pursuant to laws passed by Congress. It’s simply insulting to have them sitting at home, under duress of not being able to feed their families or pay their mortgages, while our elected representatives continue their game of chicken.

There’s some comfort in knowing that, presuming the Senate goes along with the unanimous vote in the House, that everyone will get paid eventually. But the damage to morale caused by all this, to say nothing of the billions of dollars of wasted taxpayer money that will never be recouped, will be there long after this dispute is resolved.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark Ivey says:

    The GOP has lost the Federal Govt worker vote..

  2. john personna says:

    Slightly tangential – I think some Teas see shutdown as a kind of nirvana.

    They only ever wanted “essential” services anyway, and so when they ask for parks to be opened without staff, etc., they are asking for the libertarian dream. Bring your own toilet paper or buy it from the entrepreneur by the door.

    Returning to DOD, that would be part of the new normal for them, I’m sure.

  3. John Burgess says:

    @Mark Ivey: LOL! All six Republicans you mean?

  4. JKB says:

    Well, assuming President Petty-bone doesn’t come after you as an example, you are probably okay attending the conference on furlough. As long as you don’t try to claim pay or travel expenses, that is. As an exempt employee who has been denied permission, you’d have a hard time making a valid claim for compensation.

    The whole “essential/non-essential” is a poor categorization. And one fraught with self-esteem issues. It is really a determination of whether the employee’s effort are needed immediately or can it be deferred. Law enforcement, immediate, policy analyst, not so much. Although as time goes on, the non-immediate employee’s effort may rise in immediacy.

    An amusing contrast which is often completely reversed due to pride issues is between an Office head and a secretary. The former can go off on travel with barely a ripple on the immediate term operations of the office but let the latter take an hour of personal time and things start falling apart. Perhaps less so now but 20 years ago, I saw Ph.Ds running about in a state because they couldn’t figure out the copy machine and the secretary was out of the office. (Granted most of these were old school Ph.Ds who had become dependent upon administrative services of others)

    One other sore spot “shutdowns” reveal is that many of the higher educated/professional employees don’t see themselves as “workers”. Although they are quick to put in for their overtime and travel expenses. But psychically, it is a serious trauma when they are treated as an employee and one whose work isn’t the most important thing in the world as well. That they are treated as a common employee. Worse, less essential than the guy without a degree who cleans, protects or maintains. Just a little ‘bubble” people create to avoid the harsh truth that we are in the end, just a “hired hand” subject to being laid off. And as government employees, everyone is just a “hired hand”. Even Obama will be let go in few years when his contract is up and could have been let go last year if his contract hadn’t been extended for another term. Same with all those in Congress. The owners, though often subverted, of the United States are the citizens who take on “hired hands” to handle the day to day operations.

  5. john personna says:


    Do you see shutdown as a national emergency? Or a political charade?

  6. JKB says:

    I see it as what it is. The very blunt and cloddish action that happens when the House, Senate and President refuse to negotiate with each other to arrive at some tolerable compromise. It is as it was written by the Founders.

  7. JKB says:


    To be fair to the Founders, i don’t think they thought Americans would ever sell out their heritage and liberty to a behemoth government where the failure to pass appropriations would be so critical to the day to day lives of the People.

  8. john personna says:


    If that is true you, and all of us, should just want it over.

    And then serious debate on spending (and tax) bills.

  9. john personna says:


    I hope you set your hair on fire before typing that.

    It’s traditional.

  10. Argon says:

    You should know by now that he GOP hates all government functions except the military and military contracts. Basically, James, your work is less essential because Freedom.

    Don’t take it personally. You’re just not in a politically gameable area of the government. Be glad they don’t notice you because then your area would be kicked around like a political soccer ball. Consider the EPA. The GOP considers that work not just nonessential, they think the department is an anathema and would love to lay off all workers there permanently. How do you think those in the EPA feel whenever the GOP turns the scrutiny on them?

  11. JKB says:

    @Argon: How do you think those in the EPA feel whenever the GOP turns the scrutiny on them?

    I suspect they feel “uh oh, we got some ‘splain’ to do!”

    Not to mention they feel the most feared of all emotions for government workers, the fear of accountability.

  12. al-Ameda says:

    The message is, “We only care about repealing or defunding ACA.”
    Also, they want to appear to care about national defense. The Tea Party is is toxic.

  13. JKB says:

    @john personna: And then serious debate on spending (and tax) bills.

    Obama is unwilling to negotiate now. What makes you think he’d negotiate (debate) when he had all he wanted?

    Sure, i want it over, but sometimes going along to get along is less a strategy and more a surrender.

  14. JKB says:

    @al-Ameda: The Tea Party is is toxic

    to the Progressive agenda.


  15. al-Ameda says:


    The very blunt and cloddish action that happens when the House, Senate and President refuse to negotiate with each other to arrive at some tolerable compromise.

    You do realize that House Republicans consider repealing or defunding ACA to be their compromise position, don’t you?

    How do you negotiate a compromise with people who have said that if you capitulate to their “compromise” position they will probably kill you any way?

  16. anjin-san says:

    @ JKB

    I suspect they feel “uh oh, we got some ‘splain’ to do!”

    Well, they could start by explaining to you why rivers don’t catch on fire in America any more.

  17. john personna says:


    Are you willing to negotiate?

    What advancements are you offering the progessives?

  18. superdestroyer says:

    @Mark Ivey:

    What makes you think the Republicans ever had a significant portion of the federal worker vote? Do you really think all of the human resource managers and budget analyst are going to vote for the small government, personal responsibility party?

  19. superdestroyer says:

    The Constitution requires Congress to fund the government and pass a budget. Yet, for the last 30 years the continuing resolution process has basically replaced the budget process so that the government can keep on spending and no politicians has to go on record for having voted for trillion dollar deficits and $3.6 trillion dollar budgets.

    Now Congress and the Executive Branch has found that they do not even need to approve a continuing resolution, the government can just spend whatever it wants, whenever it wants and just call it an emergency. Why does anyone need a Congress when over 80% of the government operates on automatic and is immune to whatever Congress does?

  20. john personna says:


    You like this semantic argument? That a “resolution” funding government is not a “budget?”

  21. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    A continuing resolution is meant to say that the government will continue funding from the previous budget and that nothing new is supposed to be done. What the Obama Administration and turned the CR into the budget act and has turned automatic entitlement spending into the new CR.

    the federal government has been operating under CR for almost the entire time that President Obama has been president. I suspect that President Obama may be the first president to go more than a week or two under emergency spending since the government refuses to stop spending without a CR.

  22. al-Ameda says:


    I suspect that President Obama may be the first president to go more than a week or two under emergency spending since the government refuses to stop spending without a CR.

    I suspect that a CR to keep the government operating is legal. I also suspect that no president in recent memory (who was White) faced the kind of malevolent, intransigent, and unyielding opposition to his presidency, and who planned to bring government to a shutdown over their animus to him personally and a single law associated with him specifically.

  23. swearyanthony says:

    Last week we saw pieces about the furloughing of civilians at DoD causing pain for defense contractors. Suddenly those workers are going back to work. Call me cynical…

  24. superdestroyer says:


    Once again, progessives have to play the race card. Are Republicans not allowed to disagree with President Obama. Maybe he problem is not race but the Obama Administrations inability to makes deals with Congress. President Clinton threw the Congressional Democrats under the bus and left office with a 70% approval rating. Yet, President Obama has hooked with administration with keeping Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi happy. Why not make a dea and pass real budgets rather than operating under CR for years.

  25. DrDaveT says:

    A continuing resolution is not a budget, nor even close.

    Suppose that, instead of earning a paycheck this year, you were instead authorized to draw on an account that would let you purchase anything you purchased last year, up to the same quantity. (We’ll skip the effect of inflation for now.) Got a kid who was going off to college this year? Sorry, can’t do it — college wasn’t on last year’s list. Got a medical crisis? Sorry, medical expenses are limited to last year’s amount. Bought a new roof for your house last year? Congratulations, you can do it again this year.

    That’s what a CR is like.

  26. DrDaveT says:

    @superdestroyer: Once you pay the danegeld, you’re never rid of the Dane.

    If the administration caves and agrees to negotiate policy in exchange for a budget, or a new debt ceiling, there will never again be a budget or debt ceiling raise without hostage-taking. This precedent must not be set. I would feel exactly the same if the Democrats were the ones holding the budget process hostage, in order to repeal some law I detest even more than Obamacare.

  27. al-Ameda says:


    Once again, progessives have to play the race card. Are Republicans not allowed to disagree with President Obama

    Race Card? Polls consistently show that nearly half of Republicans subscribe to Birther claims that Obama is not a legitimately elected president. Now that’s a very well played Race Card right there. Of course Republicans are free to disagree with a president that nearly half of them believe is not legitimate.