For those keeping score over the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, here are the crucial numbers: $5 billion versus $1.3 billion. Eight hundred thousand. Nine. Zero and zero.
The billions represent the difference between President Donald Trump’s request for funding of a border wall versus what Congress has previously pledged to devote to physical border security improvements. The 800,000 figure? That’s the number of federal workers who are either working unpaid or staying home with no guarantee they’ll receive their missing paychecks. Nine is how many days this ludicrous standoff has been in effect as of Monday.
And finally, the zeros represent both the level of concern demonstrated by the nation’s elected leaders, particularly its president, for those furloughed public servants who are wholly undeserving of such wanton neglect and mistreatment — and for the chances of a political compromise over border security emerging from this debacle. Why? For this inescapable reason: The Democratic House majority that takes office on Thursday was elected in 2018 because they oppose a border wall. How could they turn on voters within hours or even days or weeks of taking their oaths of office?
Elections matter. Remember that mantra? If it made sense in 2016, it makes sense in 2018 and beyond. Sure, Republicans might be able to stack up enough incentives to get some movement — offering some serious progress on immigration reform, for example, might be worth wasting taxpayer billions (which is the best that can be said about the wall business) — but what’s been mentioned so far isn’t even in the ballpark. Specifically, Sen. Lindsey Graham’s recent suggestion that the Trump administration might get on board with a plan to not deport so-called “dreamers” seems unlikely, particularly without a path to citizenship as part of the deal.
But to even speculate on such an arrangement seems silly given that President Trump appears motivated solely by a desire to go to the mattresses over border wall funding to please his base no matter how futile. It’s not like there’s some thoughtful study out there pointing to a wall as a good idea compared to other border security strategies. No, this is about Trump rally chants like “Build the wall!” (Although apparently not about the “Who is going to pay for it? Mexico” incantation that usually followed.)
And if that sounds like we are blaming Mr. Trump for the standoff, yes, this is mostly about the president. He was the one who candidly pointed out during an Oval Office meeting with House speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Dec. 11 that he was "proud to shut down the government over border security." His efforts to shift blame since that fateful utterance notwithstanding, this is not a 50-50 matter. And Americans have acknowledged it with a recent poll that shows a plurality blame Mr. Trump for the shutdown rather than Democrats in Congress (47 percent to 33 percent).
Still, that’s just politics. Who speaks for those federal workers, particularly those secretaries and receptionists, janitors and clerks of limited means, who are living without a paycheck? Clearly, not an administration where the president tweets that most of them are Democrats or an Office of Personnel Management that “inadvertently” tweets a sample letter (since removed) by which a furloughed federal worker could ask his or her landlord to accept maintenance work like painting or carpentry in lieu of rent. Why not suggest they dine on cake instead?
The federal government has faced shutdowns of one form or other before — this is the 19th since 1976 — but rarely has there been so much indifference to the effects of that budget standoff. Even during the longest, the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich-era impasse that started in late 1995 and lasted three weeks, both sides seemed to understand early on that something bad (embarrassing and irresponsible even) had happened. And the political fallout was apparent — the Republicans were seen as instigating the “crisis” to modest effect on the actual budget, and their candidate, Sen. Robert Dole, consequently suffered at the polls. Small wonder that veteran GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are nowhere to be seen as this farce drags on.
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