Shutdowns Aren’t Policy

Shutdowns Aren’t Policy


President Donald Trump was on very shaky ground last Friday when he said he was “proud” to end a partial federal shutdown after 36 days of failure to resolve an impasse over his insistence on securing $5.7 billion for a border wall. 

Indeed, neither the president nor Congress should attempt a victory lap over the record shutdown that left 800,000 federal workers without paychecks and hurt government contractors and other private business people who may never recover their lost income. 

To use the tactic of a government shutdown to force action on a policy issue is inexcusable, even immoral, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the maneuver. In the coming three weeks, as efforts intensify to avert another shutdown, both sides need to put aside policy differences and act in the best interests of the country.

The losses to the nation during the shutdown piled up. Financially, the firm S&P Global Ratings estimated that the partial government shutdown cost the nation $6 billion, $300 million more than Trump insisted he get to fund the wall. The Congressional Budget Office said the shutdown cost the economy $11 billion, including $3 billion that is lost permanently. 

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There were other costs as well. The day that Trump announced he was giving in and letting the government reopen for three weeks, the Federal Aviation Administration curtailed flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, among other places. And the disgraceful displays of trash at closed national park sites, not to mention the disappointment of would-be visitors to the Gateway Arch and other popular destinations, are impacts that are hard to quantify.

After all of his threats and insistence that the nation would be in dire shape if he did not get what he wanted to stem a purported tide of dangerous immigrants —despite evidence that the barrier is not needed — what made the president cave, a rare example of his failure to stand firm?

Was it the specter of more disruptions to the nation’s air travel? Was it one more attempt, as Trump has done so often, to deflect attention from the day’s news from special counsel Robert Mueller: the arrest of Roger Stone, Trump’s  longtime ally? Did he actually see the folly of his intransigence, not to mention how silly his new ’50s-sounding slogan —“Build a wall and crime will fall” — sounded to the nation as a whole?

Of course, the shutdown could have been avoided. For two years, Trump had a Republican-controlled Congress that probably would have given him what he wanted for his wall, but nothing happened. Now, when Democrats control the House, the president suddenly sees a dire emergency, once more raising the fear of marauding caravans heading north to the border, and tries to hold the budget and the nation hostage to his demands. 

None of his claims stand up to close scrutiny.

During the shutdown, news reports surfaced that the wall began not as a security necessity but as campaign rhetoric for Trump to use in his boisterous rallies. Once the mention of a wall got an enthusiastic reaction, with the added notion that Mexico would foot the bill, Trump never turned back.

Now, he needs to realize that campaign slogans can’t become government policy just because he wants them to. And his vague threats of declaring a national emergency if he doesn’t get his way are getting tiresome. Even Missouri’s Roy Blunt, a member of Republican leadership  in the Senate who sits on a committee that will try to come up with a decent compromise, says such a move would set a bad precedent.

Not surprisingly, Trump is already undermining his own plan. Even before the conferees could begin meeting, he told The Wall Street Journal that “it’s less than 50-50” that they would come up with a plan that he would sign, and he raised the possibility once more that he would simply declare a national emergency to get what he wants.

In the time between now and the end of the three-week grace period that Trump instituted, both parties need to put the welfare of the nation first, not the president’s vanity.  The American people are fed up with temporary fixes that only serve to postpone required action on sensible, effective immigration policy.

Pragmatists should stop trembling before the most radical elements in their respective bases. Complaints from the likes of pundit Ann Coulter can’t be allowed to overrule common sense. If and only if a long-term, comprehensive immigration reform package is enacted and signed can the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claim to be proud of the way they are representing the American people. 

And using government shutdowns to achieve policy objectives is a sad way to run a country. If the upcoming talks result in another impasse, any resulting shutdown should include a moratorium on pay to the president, his staff and members of Congress. Maybe that will focus the attention of those who have the true power to bring sanity back to Washington.