10/07/2013 11:37 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

They Can't Shut Down Mother Nature

Attempting to "get away from it all" for a few hours over the weekend, I sought the beautiful sights of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore. Well, I may have been two hours away from Washington but I didn't get away from anything. Reminders of the government shutdown are plentiful. The police tape across the driveway at the entrance to Blackwater's Wildlife Drive said it all:


Guess what? They can shut down the federally managed part of Blackwater, but they can't shut down Mother Nature. Fortunately, Blackwater's 27,000 acres of marshland, open water, forests and fields are so vast that they'd have to wrap all of Dorchester County in yellow tape to hide the beauty. Without crossing a single police line, I was able to commune with my non-furloughed friends among the eagles and great blue herons and other wildlife that abound in this fertile habitat.

The eagles may well enjoy a few days without people snapping their photos, but in fact, even the eagles have depended upon the federal government for their survival. Absent aggressive federal policies to save this once-endangered species, our national bird and symbol of American might would not now soar in abundance at Blackwater and all over the Eastern Shore, and throughout the United States.

While the wildlife may well be fine with a few days, weeks or months of federal gridlock, real life is not so fine. Indeed, human suffering increases each day that our public officials fail in their most fundamental duty to protect and uphold the interests of the people of the United States. These are not narrow special political interests, but the broad interests of economic security through having a job and receiving income from work, the ability to care for children and elders, access to good health care and the security of knowing that law enforcement and defense personnel are on the job to protect our cities and nation.

For people who work for the federal government, or people whose livelihoods and welfare depend on the business generated by federal activities, all of this is now at risk. People are suffering grievously because politicians are grandstanding or catering to narrow special interests. Members of Congress who refuse to discharge their most fundamental duty of care for all citizens are breaching their essential moral and legal duties to the citizens of this nation.

My students at Trinity have been writing to me all week telling me of their increasing economic and emotional distress because of the federal shutdown. Like the majority of college students everywhere today, my students are not those mythical youngsters of yesterlore blithely enjoying parties and pranks heedless of the world around them. On the contrary, my students are also federal workers, in many cases, or employees of companies that depend on the business the federal government generates in Washington. Suddenly, my students are without the relatively small paychecks that carry them from week to week to feed their children, commute to work and school, buy books and pay the rent -- already-fragile lives pushed hard to the margins by relatively comfortable politicians oblivious to the suffering they inflict.

Mr. Joseph Sheridan, a math instructor at Trinity, expressed the plight of Trinity students quite well in an email message to me this week, which he gave me permission to quote:

Many of my students are low-income ... and the shutdown of the Federal Government is a heavy burden to them. These are students that are struggling to reverse their economic situation through the American Dream of higher education and the door is being not only closed, but slammed in their faces. While some may be affected directly with a family member being furloughed, ... all will be greatly affected by the ancillary businesses that are closely tied to government workers. The student that waits tables in S.E. near the Navy Yard at a restaurant will have a few less work shifts as the government workers are not there since they have been furloughed. The parent that works a graveyard shift to support his family and then works his second job as a fast food vendor on the corner outside a government building to pay for his daughter's metro pass to get back and forth to college - will not have that additional money. The student whose parent drives a taxi between Union Station and the government buildings will have far fewer fares and then must make the hard decision of continued support for his daughter's college education or to pay rent and eat. I know this father (through his daughter, my student); he will choose to go hungry. The student whose mother cleans the government buildings at night to pay for her daughter's college books (the rising costs of text books is yet another plight on the low-income families seeking higher education) will have to find the additional income elsewhere.

Trinity students are just a few thousand among the millions of people suffering harm as a result of the shutdown of the federal government. They are all political parties and have many different points of view on political issues. But they are united in one clear principle: the duty of public officials is to help, not harm, the people they serve. And public officials serve ALL the people, not just a narrow group in the district back home.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives take an oath of office swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution starts with the words, "We, the People of the United States...." NOT simply the people who voted for you. NOT simply the people who agree with you. NOT simply the people who ReTweet you.

No. "We, the People of the United States" means EVERYBODY.

Members of Congress have an obligation to all of us, including the legal and moral duty to work to "...form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity..."

Deliberately shutting down the federal government to score political points is a breach of this most fundamental duty of Congress, and a betrayal of the entire nation whose interests the Congress is supposed to serve. For millions of Americans, this is not a cerebral contest about ideological points of view; this is real life, milk and bread on the table, diapers and formula for babies, metro cards and gas in the tank.

Members of Congress must not persist in shutting down jobs and services, grievously harming the welfare and economic security of the people they are sworn to serve. We, the People, must demand that all elected officials live up to their oaths, end the shutdown or resign their offices. Immediately!