Today, American politics and society are more divisive than ever. The recent federal government shutdown over proposed funding for a U.S. Mexico border wall is emblematic of this division. The Government initially shut down on December 22nd after the two major parties failed to come to an agreement on allocation of funds for the 2019 budget. Although the Government has temporarily been re-opened until February 15th, the two sides are no closer to reaching a realistic solution.
Part One: Money
Every fiscal year, the U.S. President proposes a new annual budget for the government and all of its agencies and departments. This budget, which is proposed by the Office of Management and Budget, is then approved by the President and finally sent to Congress for appropriations.
Appropriations are bills that address discretionary government spending- funding that is neither automatic nor mandatory. These bills, which are created and adjusted annually by congressional committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, pertain to twelve subcommittees including the Department of Homeland Security.
After the House and Senate Committees decide how to allocate the spending for the coming year by passing 12 individual bills, one for each subcommittee, each house has then created a potential budget. From there, the House and Senate form a Conference Committee which combines members from both houses in order to reconcile the two proposed versions of the budget and create one, final budget resolution that is then passed in both houses for approval.
At least, this is theoretically what is supposed to happen. So where did our current government go astray?
Part Two: Immigration policy
During his 2015 Presidential announcement speech, then-presidential candidate Trump made a bold promise to his supporters: “I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” This promise soon became the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign and he capitalized on it in order to help him win the presidency.
Over the course of the past three years, Trump has been struggling to make that happen. This all circles back to the government’s failure to pass a 2019 budget for one, basic reason: Trump wants a wall, Democrats want DACA funding.
DACA stands for ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ and is a program created under the Obama administration to help the children of illegal immigrants. Specifically, DACA extended protections to children who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and provided them with work permits, study permits and protection from deportation. Although the Trump administration ended DACA in 2017, courts and Democrats have been fighting for an extension of the program since. The fate of these children, known as ‘dreamers,’ is going to depend heavily on weather or not the democrats can convince republicans to make concessions regarding the program.
In addition to Trump’s end to DACA, his administration has also been cracking down on illegal immigration over the past two years. This past summer, the administration unveiled its new ‘Zero-tolerance’ policy; this meant that all people who attempted to illegally cross the border were subject to federal criminal prosecution. When these people, who often had their children with them, were sent to jail, the children were forcefully separated from their parents and sent to detention centers along the border. Since June, as estimated by a Health and Human Services Inspector Report, 2,700 children have been separated from their families and 170 have still yet to be reunited. Furthermore, two children under the age of ten died in custody of border control in detention centers while a number of other toddlers died within weeks of their family reunification date (Durkin). Despite the human rights violations that occurred as a direct result of his policy, Trump refused to take responsibility and instead repeatedly blamed Democrats for refusing to cooperate and create new immigration policy.
Additionally, Trump repeatedly increased the number of U.S. troops along the border throughout 2018. In late October a ‘migrant caravan’ originating in Honduras made its way up through Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border. In anticipation of the arrival of an influx of migrants, Trump deployed between 5,000 and 7,000 U.S. troops to provide support for the Department of Homeland Security. Once the caravan arrived- in significantly smaller numbers than originally projected- border security agents used tear gas against families and children attempting to cross. Despite no violence occurring on behalf of the migrants, Trump justified the tear gas by stating that border security agents were “being rushed by some very tough people” (BBC).
The tumultuous recent history of U.S. immigration policy contextualizes the extreme tension regarding funding for the Department of Homeland Security. Specifically in reference to the shutdown, in regard to the shutdown, Trump demanded $5.7billion USD be included in the 2019 budget for the Department of Homeland Security- one of the 12 subcommittees Congress must re-fund annually- for purpose of creating a wall. However, Congressional Democrats- who hold a majority in the House- refused to include this provision. Among other grievances, they site the fact that Congress previously awarded Trump $1.6billion USD last March for fortification of the 700 miles of fencing that exist along the 1,933 mile US-Mexico border. Additionally, Democrats were calling for continued protection of DACA recipients who were under the threat of deportation after the Trump administration ended the program back in September of 2017.
This disagreement culminated in early December with Congressional Democrats refusing to include funding for a wall in the 2019 budget unless Trump made concessions regarding DACA, and Trump refusing to extend DACA protections unless the Democrats considered funding for his wall. This is where the gridlocked U.S. government stood in December just before the beginning of the shutdown.
Since then, the government has passed a number of CRs, or Continuing Resolutions, which allow the government to temporarily stay open until members of Congress and the President can come to an agreement on a new budget. The latest CR was passed on January 25th, 2019 in both the House and Senate; this bill will allow the government to stay in partial operation until February 15th, thereby giving Congress an additional chance to negotiate a new budget.
Part Three: Effects
Perhaps the most important effect of the government’s shutdown is the impact it has on federal workers. While some government agencies are still being funded through CRs- the bills enable the departments to be funded using the formulas from the previous year- other departments are partially shut down in order to conserve funding. Nine government departments ranging from Homeland Security to Justice to the FDA to NASA are being partially funded. This means that over 800,000 federal workers across the U.S. are either furloughed or required to show up to work but do not receive paychecks.
This clearly becomes a problem when one contextualizes this fact in the bigger backdrop of the American workforce: according to a 2017 study by CareerBuilder, 78% of Americans who work full time live paycheck to paycheck and a more recent analysis revealed that 54% of Americans would not be able to pay their bills if they missed two paychecks. Since the shutdown began on December 22nd, federal employees have missed more than two paychecks. Struggling government employees have thus been forced to turn to food banks, shelters and other forms of community support to get by.
Additionally, as a result of the shutdown congress created a new Conference Committee in an attempt to create a budget before the advancing deadline. . As previously mentioned, the latest CR passed in late January will extend government debate until February 15th. In order to more effectively work towards a resolution, Congress created the Committee to focus specifically on reconciling the differences between the proposed budget bills from the House and Senate. This committee is made up of eight Democrats and nine Republicans from both houses whose goal is to streamline the discussion about the budget in committee while simultaneously garnering the support of their fellow party members outside of committee sessions. If the committee were to theoretically succeed, it would create an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security that satisfied both parties and would be passed in both houses of Congress, thereby finalizing the budget for the 2019 year and allowing the government to reopen. The question of whether or not the committee will actually succeed is inherently subjective.
A third key consequence to the shutdown is the money wasted The three biggest factors that play into this expenditure are partially shut down government agencies and departments operating via CRs, furloughed employees, and unpaid employees. The Congressional Budget Office issued a report on the government shutdown that technically ended on January 25th with the latest CR, and enumerated costs across various areas affected by the shutdown. NPR’s Planet Money, based on this report, estimated that the shutdown cost the U.S. about three billion U.S. Dollars.
First and foremost, it is the furloughed employees that create the biggest waste. They will eventually be compensated for their time of absence during the shutdown despite the fact that they were not working; in other words, the government will pay them but never receive the services they were supposed to provide. Additionally, the 500,000 federal workers who showed up to work but will not be compensated until after the government fully re-opens lacked money to invest in the economy. For the period of over a month in which they were not paid, they spent less money on goods and services which, directly and negatively, affected the U.S. economy. Finally, costs piled up from the government agencies that were being inefficiently funded based on the previous year’s formulas. New budgets are created annually with the purpose of re-allocating money that that was wasted the previous year through faulty formulas or poor allocation. In other words, the use of CRs to partially fund certain agencies using their old formulas means a continuous waste of money.
Part Four: Implications
In the short term regarding February 15th, there seem to be two plausible options on the horizon. Option 1: Democrats agree to allocate some funding for border security and Republicans agree to concessions regarding DACA. The two groups agree on a deal proposed by the conference committee and the government reopens on February 15th. However, the likelihood of this happening appears to be very low. Trump personally believes the committee has less than a 50/50 chance of success and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that trading DACA protections for border wall funding is a “non-starter.” (Tillett)
Thus, option 2: Another government shutdown. If the conference committee fails to create a new budget that is approved by both houses before the current CR expires, the government will incur yet another shutdown. However, this also has been deemed unlikely. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that he would support “whatever works” to prevent another shutdown; his position is supported by a number of fellow Republicans who recognize the negative impact another shutdown would have on the nation (AP). Furthermore, with the 2020 Presidential election in the back of Americans’ minds, another shutdown would likely hurt Trump’s possibility of being re-elected.
With neither of these options looking too promising, Trump crafted his own, long term solution to evade the sticky situation: the declaration of a national emergency. Trump, devoted to delivering his promise to build a wall along the U.S.’s southern border, has said that “there is a good chance (he’ll) have to” declare a national emergency in order to fund his wall (Wilkie). Such a declaration would give him the sole authority, as President, to redirect money and resources to the southern border regardless of what the 2019 budget entails. Despite his enthusiasm for such a move, according to a recent poll, only 34% of the American population would be supportive of it and it’s constitutionality would likely be challenged in courts. Furthermore, in declaring an emergency he could be dividing his own party. Republicans would then be forced to choose between supporting a hard-line stance on immigration or opposing an overreach of government power. This in turn could set a problematic precedent: Democrats could emulate Trump’s declaration in the future to address issues of importance to them.
So this is where we currently stand: somewhere in limbo between government shutdown and a fully functioning government with three dismal options awaiting us on February 15th. Now it is a matter of wait-and-see.