As a partial government shutdown dragged on through a 34th day, a former head of the Transportation Security Administration said he feared there is only so long that members of the Coast Guard, the TSA, and hundreds of thousands of other federal workers can keep working without pay, as Democrats rebuked a top Trump Administration Cabinet official who seemed puzzled by stories of federal workers going to food banks in search of assistance because they haven’t been paid in almost four weeks.
“There is a point at which there is a breaking point,” said Peter Neffenger, the TSA chief during the Obama Administration, and a former Vice Admiral of the Coast Guard, who said he had spoken with a number of Homeland Security workers during the shutdown, praising them for still showing up to work every day.
“To fail to pay people who have done these hard things, I think is unconscionable,” Neffenger added.
Neffenger’s comments to a Capitol Hill symposium organized by House Democrats came as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross set off a political firestorm with an appearance on CNBC, which Democrats said was proof that top Trump Administration officials were out of touch with those 800,000 federal employees who aren’t getting paid.
Asked about reports that federal workers were going to food banks and getting other aid, Ross – a very wealthy man himself – seemed puzzled.
“I know they are and I don't really quite understand why,” the Commerce Secretary said, as he advised federal workers to get a loan to tide them over financially.
Ross also criticized some workers who have been calling in sick due to financial issues caused by the shutdown, and the lack of pay.
“It's kind of disappointing that the air traffic controllers are calling in sick in pretty large numbers,” Ross said in the CNBC interview.
Democrats quickly attacked.
“Another ‘Let them eat cake’ moment from the Trump Administration,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL).
“Secretary Ross’s comments are the 21st Century equivalent of, ‘Let them eat cake,'” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer.
“This Administration doesn't understand the struggles of middle-class families and they won't even try,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA).