By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday urged furloughed federal workers facing a second missed paycheck to seek loans to pay their bills while adding that he couldn’t understand why they were having trouble getting by.
In a CNBC interview, Ross, a billionaire investor, called it “disappointing” that some federal workers affected by the government shutdown were not showing up to work and said “there really is not a good excuse” for affected employees to lack money, adding that they should be able to borrow funds from financial institutions.
Ross made the comments as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history entered its 34th day with no clear end in sight.
About 800,000 workers have been furloughed across roughly one-quarter of the federal government. Many have turned to unemployment assistance, food banks and other support, or other work to try to make ends meet.
Asked about their struggles, Ross told CNBC: “I know they are, and I don’t really quite understand why.”
“The banks and the credit unions should be making credit available to them,” he said, noting that the government would give federal employees back pay. “There really is not a good excuse why there really should be a liquidity crisis.”
“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,” Ross said.
He also rejected comments that the shutdown would hurt the U.S. economy. “While I feel sorry for the individuals that have hardship cases,” even if the 800,000 workers never got paid, it would amount to less than one percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, he said.
Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi took Ross to task for the comments.
“Is this the ‘Let them eat cake,’ kind of attitude, or ‘Call your father for money?’ or, ‘This is character building for you?'” Pelosi asked at a news conference, adding she did not understand why Ross would make the comment “as hundreds of thousands of men and women are about to miss a second paycheck tomorrow.”
Ross is not the first Trump administration official to downplay federal workers’ plight. White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett likened the furlough to a vacation in an interview with PBS earlier this month, though on Tuesday he told Fox News that he knew workers felt “a lot of pain right now.”
“Sadly, it looks like it’s possibly that federal employees are going to miss another paycheck,” Hassett told Fox, adding that one of his staffers had turned to driving for Uber.
Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and 2020 re-election campaign adviser, this week told online television outlet BOLD TV that federal workers faced “a little bit of pain” over their bills but urged sacrifice, saying “this is so much bigger than any one person.”
U.S. President Donald Trump, a real estate developer and former reality television star, has said federal workers support the shutdown, which was triggered by his demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
He responded to Pelosi’s criticism of Ross by tweeting that he stood firmly behind the need for a wall, saying “We will not Cave!”
Trump has signed a law to pay back affected federal workers when the government reopens, but it does not extend to private contractors or others whose livelihoods depend heavily on federal workers’ business.
Federal workers will miss a second paycheck on Friday unless Congress and the White House find an imminent solution.
As the standoff dragged into its second month, a rising number of airline security workers have not shown up at airports, raising security worries. It has also raised concerns for low-income people who depend on critical government services such as food stamps, housing and other programs.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)