While our nation enters week two of the government shutdown and Congress’ approval rating reaches an anemic 10 percent, the lowest number in recent history, I grow more and more concerned about the future. We witness politicians on both sides of the aisle failing to reach compromise, let alone engage in productive and inclusive debate. I fear that our nation’s future leaders will be alienated by what they see online and on cable news, hear on talk radio and read in their local newspapers. There is a demonstrated and documented interest by young Americans in committing themselves to a cause and seeking ways to better their communities, their nation or the world. My grave concern is that this type of enthusiasm that in the past would have led to Washington now more and more is channeled away from government. We are eroding public service as a calling.
When I served in the House of Representatives from Maryland, I had the privilege of representing thousands of federal employees as well as 18 federal agencies. I use the word “service” proudly because being a member of Congress, to me, means that we make a commitment to serve our community and country, not our party. During the past government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996, I, along with many of my Maryland and Virginia colleagues, worked tirelessly to end the stalemate so that our neighbors could go back to work and receive back-pay so that their mortgage payments could be met and bills paid.
While the cost of the shutdown will be enormous — measured in dollars lost by local businesses in Maryland and across the country, paychecks missed by government employees and contractors, nervous Wall Street investors, and our nation’s standing overseas — I now need to add one more casualty to the list: America’s next generation of public servants.
In 1961 when President John F. Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” the notion of public service being a noble undertaking had meaning. Young people flocked to public service, whether it was working for a federal or state agency or signing up for the Peace Corps. They were motivated to join the movement. How far we have traveled in just a few decades. Now the words “politician” or “bureaucrat” have negative connotations, and members of Congress are portrayed in the worst light possible. It worries me greatly that this vitriol and negativity will affect high school and college students who want to make a difference but will do so in the private sector, not in our nation’s capital! What incentive are we giving to become a candidate for office, to take a lead on a difficult and contentious issue, or to pursue a career path that is constantly and very publicly maligned?
The U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, of which I currently am president and which has more than 600 former senators and representatives in its membership, has for the past 35 years reached out to students across the country in an effort to promote national service. We bring volunteer bipartisan teams of former members of Congress together with students via the Congress to Campus Program. Over the past few years, we have seen first-hand that our discussions, which focus on public service and citizenship responsibility, have become more and more difficult. Why? Because America’s next generation is cynical and disenfranchised when it comes to Washington in general, and Congress specifically.
And who could blame them? We encounter huge numbers of young Americans who want to make a difference, are passionate about an issue, and seek to bring about change. Fifty years ago, or even as recently as 15 years ago, many young people would have jumped at the opportunity to go to Washington to make their mark and serve. Some would choose careers as foreign service officers, congressional staff members, general service professionals, and maybe even as candidates for office. Today, in this climate of acrimony, they view Washington as a hindrance, not a solution. They reject public service and instead seek out opportunities to change the world via non-profits or in the corporate sector.
We are losing federal employees at a much higher rate than we are able to replace them. According to the Office of Personnel Management, more than 82,000 federal workers have filed retirement claims since January 2013, a jump of 30 percent. The current disparagement of public service is causing more and more federal government employees to leave while at the same time discouraging more and more potential federal government employees from replacing them.
We need to be cognizant that one of the consequences of pay freezes, sequesters, furloughs and shut-downs is a downward spiral when it comes to workplace morale and recruitment of the best and the brightest. Federal employees have even been made to feel expendable thanks to the sequester, and now a great many of them are actually labeled as “nonessential” due to the shutdown.
Let us reduce the current crisis to these simple facts: Our elected representatives allowed our government to cease operations and discontinue serving the people of the United States; the consequences of this failure in leadership are many; and bearing the immediate brunt are hundreds of thousands of public servants, who already this year have been subjected to pay freezes, furloughs and unpaid leaves. While it will be more and more difficult to retain the great talent that is currently serving the United States as part of the federal government workforce, it will be nearly impossible to convince the next generation of the best and the brightest to commit themselves to serving their communities and their nation.
My message to our next generation of future leaders is simple: don’t give up on wanting to serve your country!
Connie Morella served in the House of Representatives from 1987-2003. She was ambassador of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development from 2003-2007, and is currently the pro-bono president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress.