Clift and Cohn: Trump violating the 13th Amendment

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Eleanor Clift



Friday, January 18, 2019

For lawmakers looking for a way to end the longest government shutdown in history, we have a suggestion. Google the 13th Amendment and read what it says. It’s just one sentence.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Apply that to what’s happening today with TSA workers deemed essential to airline safety and security working without pay, FDA workers ordered back to screen high-risk foods, and the IRS calling 46,000 furloughed employees back to work without pay to process tax refunds.

The 13th Amendment ended slavery, but it also ended involuntary servitude, a phrase that is not in common use today, but has direct bearing on what the government is doing by ordering people back to work without pay.

The shutdown is illegal and unconstitutional, a direct violation of the Constitution. Where is the ACLU? True, Trump signed a law guaranteeing eventual pay, but forcing people to work without current and regular pay remains a constitutional violation.

The government does not have the power to order people to work without pay, and that principle derives directly from the 13th Amendment and the phrase, “involuntary servitude.” The amendment was ratified in 1865, ending slavery, but there had been another form of slavery known as indentured servitude.

In theory, indentured servants who were typically white had a choice, but in reality, they didn’t, and the 13thAmendment strives to recognize that distinction. For example, Andrew Johnson, who was president when the amendment was ratified, had been an indentured servant in a tailor shop along with his brother, placed there when their father died. They worked for food and lodging, but no wages, and they ran away, breaking their contract, when Johnson was 16.

The Founding Fathers had the foresight to understand the complexity of choice. Today’s government workers, when compelled to work without pay, could refuse to comply, risking how their employer will regard them. Or they could quit, which would cost them any severance pay and possibly their pension. And they would be unable to pay their bills until they got another job lined up. It’s a choice in theory but not in the real world.

The White House has raised its estimate of how much the shutdown is reducing economic growth from 0.1 percent every two weeks to 0.13 percent every week. The numbers only begin to tell the story of the hardship that people directly affected are experiencing, and the wider ripple effect which is becoming apparent.

Long lines at airports are inconveniencing travelers as the TSA work force is below strength, and more agents than would be typical are calling in sick. Most working people live from paycheck to paycheck and don’t have reserves on hand to forego their salary for weeks on end.

President Trump has been notably callous and out of touch when he says furloughed workers can adjust, they always do. On his visit to New Orleans this week to talk to the American Farm Bureau’s annual convention, Trump had his armored car, known as the Beast, slow down so he could read gas station signs and see how much people are paying for gas.

He took credit for low gas prices, but when questioned about how Americans can make ends meet without a paycheck, he didn’t have any good answers, and his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said she didn’t know the last time Trump had been in a supermarket.

There really is something obscene and yes, unconstitutional, about a chief executive who claims to be a billionaire ordering hundreds of thousands of people to work without pay. Trump thinks people can just call their mortgage company and explain the situation, and they will get forbearance.

That’s not how it works, and if the shutdown continues much longer, this president should be held accountable for violating the 13th Amendment.

Washington Merry-Go-Round is the nation’s longest running syndicated column. Douglas Cohn is an author of political and historical nonfiction. Eleanor Clift is political reporter and author.