WASHINGTON (Reuters) — U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on Thursday urged furloughed federal workers facing a second missed paycheque 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, who made a fortune buying distressed companies, said it was 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 those employees to lack money, adding that they should be able to borrow funds from banks or credit unions.
Ross made the comments as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history entered its 34th day with no 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 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 paycheque or zero is not a really valid idea," Ross said.
Democrats took Ross to task for the comments, which drew a flood of attention from news outlets and on social media.
"Is this the 'Let them eat cake,' kind of attitude, or 'Call your father for money?' or, 'This is character building for you?'" House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked at a news conference. She noted Ross' comments came "as hundreds of thousands of men and women are about to miss a second paycheque tomorrow."
U.S. Representative Jennifer Wexton, whose northern Virginia district includes many furloughed workers and federal contractors, said she invited Ross to visit a food bank with her.
"That's one thing that's been so striking about this entire process is the complete lack of empathy from the president on down through his administration, a complete lack of understanding of what day-to-day life is for regular people in this district," Wexton told CNN.
White House officials declined to comment on Ross' remarks.
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 this month, though on Tuesday he told Fox News that he knew workers felt "a lot of pain right now."
Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and adviser to his 2020 re-election campaign, told online television outlet BOLD TV this week 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 millionaire real estate developer and former reality television star, has said federal workers support the shutdown, which was triggered by his demand for US$5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
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 paycheque on Friday unless Congress and the White House find a way to reopen the government.
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