We’re two federal paychecks into the longest government shutdown in history and government workers are hurting. But key people in President Donald Trump’s orbit have offered little in the way of comfort in recent days.
Get a loan, suggested Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary. It’s just a “little bit of pain,” said the President’s daughter-in-law and campaign aide Lara Trump.
Ross’ Commerce Department currently lacks funding and most of the more than 45,000 employees who work for him are facing down their second straight paycheck of $0.00.
But that zero-dollar paycheck isn’t really a zero-dollar paycheck, he essentially said Thursday. It’s actually an IOU that’s “100% government guaranteed.” If they can find a willing institution.
“The banks, the credit unions, should be making credit available to them,” Ross said on CNBC, pointing out that the workers will eventually get paid and banks and credit unions should be stepping into the void.
But he admitted it will cost them.
“True, the people might have to pay a little bit of interest, but the idea that it’s paycheck or zero is not a really valid idea. There’s no reason why some institution wouldn’t be willing to lend, and indeed we’ve heard tales of some of the government credit unions.”
That’s even though he acknowledged reports that workers are going to homeless shelters looking for food assistance.
“I know they are and I don’t really quite understand why,” he said. “Because, as I mentioned before, the obligations that they would undertake – say of borrowing from a bank and a credit union – are, in effect, federally guaranteed. So the 30 days of pay that some people will be out, there’s no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it.”
Getting a loan is probably a good idea for those who can. But it’s also a pain. And it takes time. And it could cost them interest, although some of the credit unions and others have been advancing 0% loans. While Ross is known to be very comfortable with debt – he once helped bail Donald Trump out of a bankruptcy in Atlantic City – a lot of Americans are reluctant to take on any more debt.
Later in the day, Ross attempted to clarify his comments.
“There are people experiencing hardship,” Ross told Bloomberg. “We’re aware, painfully aware, that there are hardships inflicted on the individual workers,” Ross said. “All I was trying to do is make sure that they’re aware that there are possible other things that could help somewhat mitigate their problems.”
But a lot of government workers are wondering why the government doesn’t just pay them on time.
That’s a question Lara Trump tried to answer in an equally tone-deaf way. Here’s what she said Monday:
“It’s not fair to you, and we all get that, but this is so much bigger than any one person. It is a little bit of pain, but it’s going to be for the future of our country, and their children and their grandchildren and generations after them will thank them for their sacrifice right now,” she said. “I know it’s hard. I know people have families, they have bills to pay, they have mortgages, they have rents that are due. But the President is trying every single day to come up with a good solution here, and the reality is, it’s been something that’s gone on for too long and been unaddressed — our immigration problem. If we do nothing right now, it’s never going to get fixed. This is our one opportunity.”
The message to unpaid workers there is that it’s OK to use the federal workforce as a bargaining chip in service of what, according to her, is the one and only chance to solve immigration. That’s a highly debatable point, to say the least. Democrats want to negotiate on border security after the government reopens.
She didn’t explain why her father-in-law and Republicans didn’t solve it when they controlled the entire federal government until earlier this month.
All of this is not to say that Democrats have any better answers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her party has to “hold the line” on the shutdown or else Trump could use a shutdown tactic in the future.
Trump’s top economic adviser Larry Kudlow was asked Thursday about Ross’ comments and wouldn’t directly address them, but he did weigh in on whether he is out of touch with the workers who aren’t getting paid.
“I don’t like to see any of this, even if it’s temporary,” Kudlow said. “Am I out of touch? I don’t think I’m out of touch. I’m addressing the problem. I’ve met with my individual staff members and God bless them. They’re working for free. They’re volunteering. But they do it because they believe government service is honorable and they believe in President Trump and they’re working as hard as ever.”
Meanwhile, a Fox News poll published this week painted a bleak picture for those workers currently figuring out how to navigate a paycheck-free world: 54% of Americans in that survey said they’d have trouble paying bills after two paychecks, while 20% said they’d have trouble after only one.
Most of the affected 800,000 workers are hitting that two-paycheck mark this week.
The paycheck may not really matter for Ross, who is worth at least hundreds of millions of dollars – though Forbes moved him off its billionaires list in 2017 after he joined the Trump Cabinet and the publication scrutinized his financial disclosure forms.
Point being: Ross, unlike more than half of Americans, can probably go a month or two without pay.
But Ross certainly knows a thing or two about debt. He built his career proudly proclaiming himself the “King of Bankruptcy.” He made his fortune buying up distressed and failing companies. And President Trump has actually borrowed the phrase to dub himself the “King of Debt.”
Before entering government service, Ross made a name for himself buying up distressed assets in the steel and coal businesses but has been focusing more on banks since the financial crisis of 2008. But he was required to divest from those assets when he became commerce secretary.
He could theoretically have benefited from those interest payments he says the federal workers should eat.