THE BLOG

DHS as Sacrificial Lamb

03/05/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

"Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?"
--Thomas Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address

It all worked out beautifully, and the way it was structured made it absolutely clear that the House of Representatives was not acting out of self-interest when it finally decided to fund Homeland Security and put an end to end the stalemate that threatened to defund Homeland Security, an action that would have put the whole country at risk of all manner of bad things from which it is protected by that agency. Members of Congress were acting in the best interests of the entire country, which is exactly what we have come to expect from our elected representatives. It also became obvious why it did what it did.

At first observers wondered why members of the House didn't link passage of legislation to reverse the president's executive order with respect to immigration with their own compensation instead of with the compensation of the folks who work at Homeland Security. Almost all of them earn considerably less than members of Congress, and it is fairly certain that the president consulted with absolutely no one in Homeland Security before issuing the executive order to which Republicans took such strenuous objection. Why members of Congress did what they did, and what members of the House who were the last holdouts were almost certainly thinking, was that if they were threatening to withhold their own pay (instead of the pay of those in Homeland Security), it would make them look bad if and when they finally agreed to approve their own pay without reversing the executive order to which they so strenuously objected. Had they structured the deal so that their pay was tied to overturning the executive order, the impasse might have been short-lived. More importantly, however, if their opposition proved to be short-lived, people would have assumed that it was because members of Congress were more concerned about their compensation than about their principles. Therefore, they decided it made more sense to hold those who work for Homeland Security hostage to their goals so they would not be accused of having acted out of self-interest when they finally accepted the inevitable.

The folks at Homeland Security probably wonder why they, of all the governmental agencies funded by Congress, became participants in the budget-vs.-the-immigrants fight. The answer is that Homeland Security is a very small agency. As of October 2013 the federal government had 2,721,000 employees (excluding members of the armed forces). Only 230,000 people work at Homeland Security. Of that number 200,000 are considered "exempt employees" whose work is "necessary for safety of life and protection property." They are required by contract to continue work even though they receive no pay until the budget is approved, at which point they receive back pay. "Exempt employees" include, among others, those who are part of the formal greeters at the nation's airports as travelers pass through security. It also includes those who are the first to greet illegal immigrants shortly after they have crossed the border into the United States. Since "exempt employees" are required to show up for work even if they receive no paychecks until the standoff comes to an end, the public would not even notice that they were working for free. Making them work for free inconveniences only 200,00 employees rather than the general public, and members of Congress understandably thought that a small price for them to pay in order to reverse the president's executive order on immigration reform. Only someone unschooled in the mind of the mindless in Congress would be puzzled by the link. (If a shutdown had occurred, the remaining 30,000 non-exempt Homeland Security employees would have been sent home and would have received no pay for their days off.)

The foregoing proves only one thing. The love members of Congress have for the United States and the appreciation they have for the work done by Homeland Security employees, who make them and the rest of the country safe, is exceeded only by their dislike for the president and his executive order. To prove their dislike, they were prepared to let Homeland Security employees be the ones to make sacrifices for their country so that members of Congress could make political points for themselves.

As we now know, the entire affair had a happy ending. People who work at Homeland Security were not forced to work without pay until the standoff ended or, in the case of a minority, go home for an indefinite leave without pay. The president's executive order remains in full force and effect, and members of Congress can now return to the difficult but self-imposed task of governing by doing nothing on the few days they can bring themselves to stay in Washington each month.

Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his website.