The government shutdown

December 30, 2018

The federal government is partially closed for the third time this year. The first two shutdowns hardly happened. They were short, not significant work stoppages.

But the direct reason for the new shutdown is lack of budgets for all or part of about a third of the agencies. Their old budgets expired Sept. 30. That day is the end of the federal fiscal year, but passage of short-term continuing resolutions (CRs) had been keeping things open while Congress continued to argue over the last of the fiscal year 2019 budget.

By early December, Democrats and Republicans had finally come to an agreement on these. The president had asked for money to build his wall along the southern border, but the parties did not include it for various reasons, including belief the wall is not needed, too expensive, there was a better way, and that the president would not go to the mat over the issue.

Trump had asked for this money before for fiscal year 2018, but was rejected. This year he sounded a bit like he would not push it hard again, but some conservative media and Republican pundits and office-holders made a noisy demand that he stand firm.

His resolve grew, and it might have become set in concrete by the heated Oval Office squabble of Dec. 10 where he met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader (soon to become Speaker) Nancy Pelosi.

After Schumer and Pelosi told Trump that they absolutely refused to support the inclusion of money for a wall, the angry president said he would then shut the government (refuse to sign the budget), and that he was even willing to take the blame for the resulting partial shutdown.

Here’s the heart of that remarkable exchange:

TRUMP: “You know what I’ll say? Yes. If we don’t get what we want one way or the other, whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call, I will shut down the government, absolutely.”

SCHUMER: “Okay, fair enough. We disagree. We disagree.”

TRUMP: “And I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems, and drugs pouring into our country.

So I will take the mantle. I will be the (one) to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.”

When the Democrats arrived at the meeting, they were surprised that the media was in the room for live television. The presence of TV can often change the dynamic of negotiations. It probably did it at the Oval Office. Trump and Schumer seemed to be looking at the cameras as they argued.

Once the shutdown began, Trump said it might be a long one because he so much wants to protect Americans from drugs, gangs, people with lots of problems, etc. — his usual trope for the wall. I think his real reason is that the wall is his best-known campaign promise.

According to a story in the U.K. Guardian newspaper last March, that’s what the scandalous company Cambridge Analytica (CA) claimed. In the story, CA said they were the group that developed many of Trump’s campaign points. Among them, especially important was building a border wall, with Mexico paying for it.

The internal report from CA that the Guardian obtained said the promise of a wall stood out from the rest because of its popularity among the Republicans they tested it on. Supposedly, Trump himself was skeptical of it and reluctant to mouth it. Once he did, he got a happy surprise, and so he kept on. Now, after promising it so many times, how could he back down and not face outrage from his base?

The Democrats say the wall costs too much for any good it might do. There are less costly and more effective methods of guarding the southern border. I think they are right, but Trump promised a wall — again and again.

There is an opportunity here for the Democrats and a danger too. What would Trump give them to get a wall? Perhaps a lot. Democrats might reap big rewards as long as their winnings are not obvious to Trump’s base. Trump has already said Democrats can call the wall whatever they want — even a fence. He has also suggested he would settle for less than the $5 billion he is asking. Nevertheless, he will likely refuse to settle if any proposed agreement is publicly seen as just a token or characterized as that by Democrats or Republican talking heads.

On the other hand, this president is well known for making abrupt changes and not honoring the words he spoke earlier. Come January, Democrats figure they will be stronger because they will run the U.S. House of Representatives. Would Democrats endure a long shutdown? What about Trump? What could prompt either side to give in? I think it would be strong public complaint. A long shutdown is no small matter.

A week’s shutdown isn’t hard to take, but the costs grow. Right now the news media keep saying 800,000 government workers might have been idled and 25 percent of the government shut, but they give few details what the workers do (and are now, not doing) except for the national parks, which everyone understands. Oddly, some of the parks are being kept open for now by the states. The states won’t be reimbursed. Other parks are open but unstaffed, leaving them wide open to poaching and vandalism.

It is hard to get a complete list of shut down agencies, bureaus, and services. The lists are either too short or too long as the rooster of shut agencies includes many that have only a few services or bureaus shut. There are also parts of the government that are still open but will slowly run out of money like the federal courts.

The Executive Office of the President is shut. Furloughed are 1,265 employees out of a total of 1,701. In the 1995-1996 shutdown, the White House, part of the EOP, was actually being run in part by young unpaid White House interns. It was during this period that President Bill Clinton discovered intern Monica Lewinsky.

NASA too is mostly shut, but the team running the amazing New Horizons deep space probe mission will be in full force for the New Year’s Day rendezvous with Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule a billion miles beyond Pluto.

The IRS is mostly shut. A long shutdown will scramble tax filings and refunds and government revenues. The IRS was already struggling under the weight of the new tax law.

The U.S. Forest Service, an agency that affects most of the West, is basically closed. So is its sister agency, the BLM, which manages 240 million acres of public lands. The national parks and monuments are mostly shut. A few like Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon are being kept open with the states paying for it. State funds are limited, however.

Additional closures are the Library of Congress, National Science Foundation. Eighty-six per cent of the Department of Homeland Security is working, but mostly unpaid work until the shutdown ends. The Centers for Disease Control is partially closed. Seventy percent of the workers for the intelligence agencies (like the CIA, NSA, DIA) have been sent home. The Federal Communications Commission is almost entirely closed. So is the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The EPA is open until their money runs out sometime in January.

The public opinion polls clearly show the public strongly blames Trump and early poll indications are that his popularity has begun to sink. However, there is that legendary base of his. Will it hold? Will the Democrats dare to compromise given the enthusiasm and anger of their newly empowered base?

Do shutdowns like this happen in other countries? The answer is mostly, no. If there is not budgetary agreement in their parliaments, the old budget continues automatically until agreement is reached.

The U.S. could pass a law changing to this. I think it is necessary because shutdowns are more and more being used to press for policies or money that could not be obtaining in the normal way.

The Democrats have used it, so have the Republicans and now even the president. Does anyone remember the lengthy shutdown of 2013 that was mostly just a Republican faction led by Sen. Ted Cruz trying to kill the Affordable Care Act?

My view is that this is a tragedy. We are being held up to promote the wall, which was really nothing more than a spicy campaign slogan Trump did not really believe in at the start.

Finally, let me ask if this wall will ever be completed regardless of the outcome of the shutdown?

There is already a high fence along about 40 percent of the southern border. This means California from the Pacific well out into the desert. It runs along much of the Arizona border and a smaller part of the New Mexico.

I have been to it in several places. It was mostly made of tall slats of wood or metal. You can see through the fence. That’s a good idea for deterring crossings or ambushes. Other parts of the fence are corrugated sheet metal.

The long Texas southern border is hardly fenced, and I think this part of the wall or fence will prove almost impossible even if there is money and political will.

The border begins at El Paso and soon the Rio Grande river is the international boundary. Unfortunately for wall builders, the river runs in several deep, narrow canyons, usually choked with vegetation at their bottom. Putting the wall on the rim would in effect, though not by law, pretty much cede the canyon to Mexico.

After the canyons, the river bottom is private land, and private land that becomes increasingly expensive to buy outright or to buy an easement for a wall. It is flat and fertile with farms and towns. Increasingly landowners are organizing against the wall (or fence).

The U.S. government cannot just seize the land. The Constitution guarantees that land taken for a public purpose must receive just compensation. This will cost as much as the wall. What is just compensation is often determined in court. Thousands of cases will probably cause a glut in the courts for a decade or more.

In a way, this will not matter to Trump and his base. He can point to places where the wall is actually being built. The base will mostly believe it and slowly forget the issue. The issue is mostly psychological anyway. The wall in their mind deterring migrants is more important than its reality.

For me the big issue is the impact of the fence or wall on wildlife, but that is not getting any consideration. Hopefully, I can write about that later.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is a professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with his wife Jackie Johnson Maughan. He is currently on the Western Watersheds Project Board of Directors.

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