U.S. Politics

America's forever standoff

On the 17th day of the government shutdown, the leaders of both parties took to the airwaves to make their case to the American public. The big takeaway from all three brief speeches is that neither side has budged an inch since day one. That does not bode well for day 18, day 19, and maybe even day 100.

Let's stipulate to the small areas of common ground. President Trump professed his love of country; so did Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. All three expressed concern for federal workers at agencies impacted by the shutdown, who will miss their first paycheck this week. All three also agreed on the need to secure national borders.

And … that's about where any common ground ends. Trump asked for eight minutes of airtime on Tuesday to make the case for the border wall, insisting that it is a necessary and critical component for border security. The amount of drugs and human trafficking that crosses the frontier with Mexico has reached crisis proportions, he argued, and that the savings from reducing or eliminating that flow would pay for the wall itself. "This is the cycle of human suffering that I am determined to end," Trump declared. He then accused Democrats of holding federal employees hostage to prevent him from solving the border-security problem.

Nonsense, scoffed Pelosi and Schumer. "President Trump has chosen to hold hostage critical services for the health, safety, and well-being of the American people," Pelosi shot back in her response. Pelosi accused Trump of "manufacturing a crisis," asserting that the money would be better spent on "innovation" and personnel rather than barriers. Schumer retorted that "the symbol of America should be the Statue of Liberty, not a 30-foot wall." Both demanded Trump's signature on a funding bill without money for his proposed wall.

In other words, everyone spent the better part of a half-hour repeating the arguments made during the previous 17 days. These are the same arguments that have been made over the nearly four years since Trump launched his presidential bid in mid-2015 with a border wall as the campaign's central policy. And in large part, they're the same arguments we've heard on this issue since Congress first authorized — but didn't fully fund — a barrier system in 2006.

Frankly, we would have learned as much watching whatever version of NCIS was pre-empted by the speeches.

During his speech, Trump asserted that "the situation could be solved in a 45-minute meeting," but the two speeches make it clear that neither side has been willing to give an inch over this issue. (Just look at what happened when they actually tried meeting.) They have dug trenches that lie $5 billion apart. One side won't give a dime, and the other won't take a dime less. If the previous two years of posturing are any indication, this standoff can't be "solved" in 45 days, or maybe even 45 weeks.

A year ago, a solution seemed ready to emerge when the shutdown shoe was on the other foot. Schumer forced that standoff over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, as it appeared the courts might intervene to allow Trump to shut it down. Talks began on trading a statutory version of DACA in exchange for more robust funding for a border-barrier system, along with asylum and visa policy changes. Schumer had to cave on the shutdown when it became apparent it wouldn't work, but the courts then punted on DACA for the short term, taking the pressure off Democrats to save it.

Without that pressure, they have no incentive to make a deal that includes border-wall funding. In fact, the midterm election results appear to give Pelosi a mandate to confront Trump across the board, especially on the border wall. Trump himself added to that perception by making border security his top message in the midterms, which ended up falling flat. If Pelosi is seen to give Trump what he wants on the wall without some dramatic concessions in return, she'll face a revolt among the rank and file as well as the progressive activists that aren't entirely thrilled with her leadership anyway. And after all the high drama of an 18-day shutdown, DACA won't be a big enough concession.

What about Trump? He has no incentive to back down either. He will have no chance at all at getting border-wall funding in the next two budget cycles if he retreats now. Trump might believe that he has no chance of winning re-election if he caves to Pelosi and Schumer on his central policy, and he may well be right. Trump is also dropping hints that he may use a declaration of emergency to use funds at the Pentagon to build the wall. If Trump sees that as a realistic option — it has significant legal hurdles but isn't entirely impossible — then he has no incentive to cross no-man's-land either.

At this point, none of the party leaders appear to have any interest in compromise, nor do they have any incentives to make a deal. The rank and file in Congress might, however, as more and more disruption occurs from the partial shutdown. Federal employees who don't get their paychecks won't spend money, creating secondary and tertiary effects in their communities. Those employees whose functions are critical will start finding ways not to show up for work. If that starts happening at TSA, it could create widespread chaos in air travel with even more economic impacts, starting with the airlines themselves. When that reaches critical mass, enough political pressure will come to bear on Capitol Hill to craft funding authorizations with veto-proof majorities.

That might end a shutdown, but it won't end the standoff on border security. That saga will continue as the perpetual standoff in American politics, no matter how this shutdown ends.


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