“I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.” – 5 U.S.C. Á‚§3331
Every federal worker takes this solemn oath before entering the civil service. Members of Congress make the same vow. As for the federal work itself, the Constitution has this to say: It is “to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”
An oath is a big deal. It’s a solemn appeal to a deity, or to some revered person or thing, as witness to one’s determination to speak the truth or keep a promise or vow. Oaths often link religion, morality, and political organization.
According to Lycurgus of Athens(d. 324 BCE), “It is the oath which holds democracy together.”
As the Nation slogs through week 5 of this federal shutdown – equal parts (1) wholly unnecessary, willfully-imposed hardship/dysfunction and (2) nationwide civics lesson, there is cause to reflect on this core oath, and the high calling that is civil service. To do so is to discover major reasons to be encouraged.
Civil servants take their oath seriously. Nationwide, the reports keep coming in, and they all speak to federal workers reporting for duty, meeting their responsibilities, remaining steadfastly and honorably determined, though unpaid. Men and women of the Coast Guard carrying out search-and-rescue, drug interdiction, providing national security across the full extent of our shores. TSA employees maintaining safe air travel. FBI agents continuing to risk their lives, working overtime to break up illegal drug supply chains, hunt down sex traffickers, root out gang activity. IRS employees helping Americans access their urgently needed tax refunds. Park Service employees keeping America’s best idea accessible to the public. State Department overseas employees recalled to deal with urgent needs abroad. National Weather Service employees taking observations, running model forecasts, issuing watches and warnings, maintaining public safety in the face of severe winter weather. Across every agency, entry-level staff and top-management together cobbling temporary fixes to maintain vital government functions at as high a level as possible and for as long as possible.
Hundreds of thousands of men and women working without pay. Similar numbers furloughed, essentially chained to their (cell) phones awaiting individual and group-wide calls to return to work as the inevitable problems arise. But all maintaining unity, cooperating to the extent that top-down prohibitions allow, proceeding quietly, in extraordinarily good order.
All displaying patience and resolve, and even valor, as they “establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.”
300 million Americans have rallied behind the workers. This is the second piece of good news. Government workers are threaded the through the fabric of society, from big cities down into the smallest of communities. Friends and neighbors have shown their appreciation for the work federal employees do. They’ve registered the unfairness of federal families’ predicament. They’ve opened their hearts and pocketbooks. They’ve set up food banks. Restaurant owners have provided free meals and other services. Lenders have extended credit and taken steps as best they can to see federal workers and contractors through the crisis. The informal social contract connecting government workers, contractors, and the uniformed services with the larger society, if anything, is strengthening.
The media have provided thorough coverage. Third, print, cable, and internet news services are doing their job as the fourth estate. They have reported and documented the continuity of government operations. Through interviews and investigative reporting they have covered the pain and hardship unnecessarily imposed on federal workers, federal contractors, and their families. Unpaid civil servants taking on additional part time jobs. Scrounging for food and health care for themselves and their kids. Coping with financial stress and family anxiety.
And as the days of the shutdown have turned to weeks, journalists have been reporting on the tears and fissures developing here and there in vital federal services. The pileup of waste and the ecological damage in the national parks. The struggle of FBI agents to pay their informants, causing them to loosen their grip on needed surveillance. Across the system, from TSA to the IRS, federal workers are increasingly forced to choose: between their federal oaths on the one hand, and equally solemn marriage vows and other promises to their life partners, children, and elderly dependents.
Such coverage will surely increase policymakers’ motivation to reach accord.
That said, a major, stultifying concern arches over these few patches of cheer: specifically, the standoff in Washington, and the causes behind it. Accusations and counter accusations fill the air, but the news media suggest there is a signal in the midst of this noise. The President believes he can turn the opposition party into as much of a doormat as his own, and that he’s in a position to insist on it. The opposition party believes if they cave on the government shutdown, that they’ll be boxed in on every major issue to follow over the next two years.
As a result, the forecast is for the pain to continue. Fortunately:
- The limits of predictability for this particular forecast are more like hours or a day or so versus weeks. The shutdown could end, relatively suddenly, at any time.
- The 300+ million Americans, and the subset of government workers and contractors – whether furloughed or working without pay – are standing together. And made of stern stuff.
A closing vignette. Some 241 years ago, a colonial army general was wintering over in Valley Forge after a season of military conflict studded with defeats and setbacks. Over 1000 of his 10,000 soldiers died that winter. But as those men suffered, they knew that he was spending every waking hour seeking their food, clothing, and shelter – and back pay.
A few years later, he would be the first president to take this (shorter) oath of office: “I, <name>, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Today he’s revered, not just because he was president, or even the first president, but because he upheld this oath.
He put the interests of the country before his own, and he saw to it that his people were cared for. Every day he spoke the truth and stood by it. In so doing, he created the metric by which each president since has been judged. We’ll celebrate his birthday in less than four weeks. We can only hope the shutdown will have been ended well before then.
 Its close relative, an affirmation, is used by those who acknowledge no higher authority to solemnize a statement or promise, lift it out of the ordinary.