Illustration by Ben Sanders
Illustration by Ben Sanders

Calvin Beale, a federal employee for more than 50 years, was an expert on the town of Fayette, Mississippi. He was also an excellent source of information if you happened to be traveling to Grand Forks, North Dakota; Estes Park, Colorado; or Ephrata, Washington.

As the national correspondent for a chain of daily newspapers, I traveled all over the U.S. and each time I set off for a new destination I would call Beale, a senior demographer at the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

He could tell me about the soil type, mineral resources, crops grown, products manufactured and unemployment rate for any town or region. He could provide the ethnic makeup, religious affiliations and, my favorite bit of information, most common surnames for an area. We must have spoken at least 20 times, though we never met in person. I felt a tremendous pang when I heard a few years ago that he had died. He was in his 80s. He never retired.

I think of Beale now with the government partially shut down, forcing 800,000 workers deemed “nonessential” to be furloughed. In “This Town,” the latest inside-Washington book, Mark Leibovich wrote about a city dominated by donor-driven politicians and overpaid lobbyists. When asked who was doing good work, who could give us some hope, Leibovich said, “journalists.” Sure, there are many good journalists, but he’s overlooking a vital part of Washington: The people Governor George Wallace used to call “pointy-headed bureaucrats” -- a phrase that regrettably lingers.

Previous Shutdown

During the shutdown of 1995-1996, I sat across from a newly elected conservative member of Congress as he flipped through the budget and gleefully pointed out all the wasteful departments that could be dumped.

“The U.S. Geological Survey, who needs it?” he said.

“People who care about earthquakes, volcanos and landslides,” I answered.

He went on: “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We don’t need NOAA because we have the Weather Channel.”

I sighed.

There is, of course, no longer anyone quite like Beale. But since leaving the newspaper I’ve begun writing about plants and animals, and I’ve encountered government workers with plenty of knowledge to share. State and federal researchers at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, can tell me how jellyfish have taken over parts of the ocean. Entomologists at the Agricultural Research Service regularly bring me up to date on the fortunes of the endangered honeybee, and explain why the reproductive rate of pine bark beetles has doubled. Anyone who has visited the battlefields at Antietam or Gettysburg knows how seriously the U.S. Park Service takes the stewardship of its sites.

Federal employees, for the most part, aren’t in their jobs for the money, they choose to work for the government because they enjoy it. (Disclosure: My husband works for the National Institutes of Health, my sister was a producer at Voice of America, I worked as a clerk-typist for the Commerce Department making a lowly $1.93 an hour, and my father was a member of Congress.)

We can’t blame government workers for feeling slapped around every time a new Congress or administration takes office. In that 1995 contretemps, federal employees were furloughed for 21 days. Three years ago, the president froze their pay. Congress has been cavalier about passing funding bills on time, relying instead on a nerve-racking series of stop-gap measures. The attitude of some members of Congress toward federal workers may come in part from ignorance about what these workers do.

Essential Services

Some government services can’t be shut down. The Food and Drug Administration still has staff at work inspecting meat and dairy products. Government services to protect life and property are considered essential. But the shutdown has forced the Centers for Disease Control to suspend its influenza tracking and reduced its capacity to investigate outbreaks. Perhaps a flu pandemic would force the loud minority in Congress to recognize the value of “nonessential” federal workers.

Government workers do more, of course, than protect us from food poisoning or flu, or keep track of soil types and surnames. They support many of the things that make life rich and give us perspective. During the showdown 17 years ago, the National Gallery was shuttered just as a special exhibit of Vermeer paintings arrived. The government is filled with curators, librarians, researchers and archivists who preserve our nation’s art, artifacts and historic documents.

I would encourage members of Congress to walk around our nation’s capital. Just a few steps east of the Capitol is the Library of Congress, usually staffed by research librarians who would be delighted to inform the legislators. (One of the beautiful building’s many murals shows the goddess of wisdom lifting the veil of ignorance.) A few blocks west, a member of Congress could visit the National Archives. Lines of tourists usually circle the block, waiting to see the Declaration of Independence. Both are closed for now, though I’m sure one of the people considered essential to the protection of property would allow a member of Congress to enter and take a long look at the Constitution.

(Constance Casey writes the “Species” column for Landscape Architecture Magazine and the series “Revolting Creatures” for Slate.)

To contact the writer of this article: Constance Casey at constancecasey927@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Alex Bruns at abruns@bloomberg.net.