Checkpoint: The Mexican Standoff Shutdown

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 On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States based on preliminary worries that longstanding U.S. allies were not buying enough Chevrolets, that ISIS was cornering the hospitality industry and that Mexican rapists were running rampant throughout the country. To meet the latter threat, Trump promised to build a wall on the southern border, an appropriate undertaking for the construction mogul that would be both “inexpensive” and be paid for “bigly” by Mexico. With between $5 and $25 billion suggested for wall funding since then and with Mexico vehemently refusing to pay for its construction, the project has proven to be more of a fiscal burden than lawmakers expected. While the president contends with the future of a divided Congress, he has remained a steadfast adherent to his campaign promise and to one of his first presidential decrees to secure appropriations for his erection of a wall.

On Nov. 8, the forecasted “blue wave” hit Congress with the Midterm Elections ushering in 38 new Democratic Representatives and drowning Republican hopes of controlling Congress until the end of 2020. These future lawmakers, many of whom were motivated to run by the president’s apparent and outspoken xenophobia, have sung the death knell for unabashed conservative policy making at the federal level. Moreover, they have left incumbents scrambling to pass and approve legislation that will last through the partisan divisions likely to continue under the 116th Congress. Among these laws are seven appropriations bills meant to provide funding for roughly a quarter of federal government operations for FY 2019, including those of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for policing America’s borders and ports of entry.

On Dec. 21, these dynamics collided after President Donald Trump refused to sign a stop-gap measure providing continued funding for those agencies until February 2019, and after the Senate failed to pass a House appropriations bill providing the requisite $5 billion in funding for lower end estimates of the border wall’s construction. These last minute events led to the third federal government shutdown in 2018, and since the start of Trump’s term. While a disheartening start to the holiday season, especially for the 800,000 federal employees that will be furloughed or forced to work without pay, this outcome was all but expected. Despite the late rallies in Congress to pass compromise bills intended to delay the inevitable, the president was never going to sign a bill that he sees as his last hope for honoring a key campaign promise.

Indeed, since the first week of his term Donald Trump has attempted to secure funding for a border wall, the scope and scale of which has continuously evolved. While tax cuts and the replacement of Obamacare were key issues for Trump voters, openly advocating for the construction of a robust border wall is largely seen as the singular most important message that led him to victory at the polls. While Trump has honored many of his campaign promises so far, this important facet of his agenda has not yet been followed through and is rightly deemed as critical to ensure repeat support from the Trump base and other Republican voters who identify border security as a top issue. To make matters worse for the president, this appropriations vote is the last he will face where his political party controls both chambers of Congress. Understanding the obstacle Democrats already pose in the president’s policy directions, Trump recognizes that it is “now or never” to pass a bill that includes border wall funding and that conceding would be his stupidest decision since the New Jersey Generals.

In Congress, as usual and despite the fact that a handful of Republicans voted against providing funding for a border wall, the impasse has taken a partisan color. As was seen with the House approving an appropriations measure allocating $5.7 billion for the wall in record time last Thursday, Republicans overwhelmingly support Trump’s pleas while Democrats are unanimously opposed. As with Trump, the Democratic position is easily understood by looking at the past Midterm result and the near future that sees them in firm control of the House of Representatives. With Republicans lacking the sixty votes necessary to prevent a filibuster in opposition to the bill in the Senate, Democrats are in the rare and comfortable position of being a minority party in both chambers able to prevent unfavorable legislation. Knowing that in January the Democratic party and its political priorities will be in a much stronger bargaining position, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the rest of the leadership are acting rationally in advocating for massive resistance from their party until the new Congress convenes.

While Democrats may be enjoying the fact that the President has “proudly” and prematurely taken the blame for the shutdown, this capricious euphoria will not last. For exactly the same reasons that Democrats are holding firm, they will eventually be forced to reach a compromise with the President. Arguably, the position of the Democrats is even worse then that of the Republicans because should the shutdown persist, once the House officially turns blue the pressure will be up to Democratic lawmakers to put an end to what will be the third longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history.

Predicting the direction of the current shutdown is tricky since it differs so much from those the nation has experienced in the past. The most notable government shutdowns in the past 25 years in 1995-1996 and 2013 which lasted twenty-seven and sixteen days respectively, saw the Republican controlled House of Representatives conjure shutdowns in opposition to Democratic presidents expanding social programs (mainly Medicare and Obamacare respectively). Furthermore, these shutdowns were done under the looming threat of an approaching debt-ceiling which if not raised in time would have lead to domestic and international economic mayhem. In addition, both occurred in the later months of years immediately preceding midterm elections, putting political pressure on Congressional representatives who would have likely been blamed while the President could comfortably retain his post.

In this instance however, we have the opposite situation. Whereas previously Congress was demanding action from the president (i.e., a scale back or total repeal of a policy), in this case the president is able to remain inactive and continue advocating for border wall funding, placing the onus to act squarely in the hands of a soon to be adversary party in effective control (i.e., with possession of over forty seats in the Senate) of Congress. While in earlier shutdowns the debt ceiling was a pressing issue that required immediate attention, in this instance the debt limit has until March 2, 2019 to be reinstated and through the use of extraordinary measures by the Treasury Department Congress has until mid-summer 2019 to formally raise the debt-ceiling. Finally, extremely rare and a testament to the current parliamentary dysfunction in the United States, a shutdown has occurred with the Republic party in control of all organs of legislative decision making, and with the midterms having just occurred rather than upcoming, the shift in control is likely to exacerbate the issue.

In sum, baring a Christmas miracle, this is likely to be a “very long” shutdown, especially for those federal employees directly affected. Like Obama in 2013, Trump is unlikely to support piecemeal measures to fund certain programs apart from Homeland Security in order to prevent political gains by Congress at the expense of the real prize of border wall funding. In the end, it is likely that the Democrats and President Trump will reach an agreement along the lines of that outlined earlier this year, where Democrats agreed to fund the border in exchange for an expansion of DACA. In any case, the longer the shutdown persists the more persuasive 2020 hopefuls will have to be in marketing themselves in order to shift blame come election time, something that despite his political failures, Trump has proven more successful at than Democrats.