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End the shutdown now

Tourists and joggers were barred entry to Fort McHenry Saturday as government funding lapsed and the historic site was closed to visitors.

Government shutdowns are often compared to hostage-takings for good reason. Vulnerable innocents are hurt, money is expected to trade hands, perpetrators treat their victims with contempt. But at Day 32, the circumstances of this nation’s longest such budget crisis feel more like a suicide pact. The level of self-inflicted harm being done — the prospect, for example, that this may help cause the United States to fall into an economic recession — has pushed this mess far beyond rational understanding.

Let’s stop discussing this embarrassment in political terms with winners and losers as if this was some normal strategy, some acceptable business-as-usual gamesmanship instead of a near-criminal folly. At its core, this is simply a gross dereliction of duty by the individuals elected to serve us. Americans have a right to expect the federal government to stay open, to pay its bills, to meet its obligations. Differences of opinion? Harsh debate? Strong words? Those things are normal, healthy even in a representative democracy. Expecting IRS agents, TSA airport screeners or U.S. Coast Guard officers to man their posts without pay? That isn’t. It’s bonkers. It’s outrageous. It’s pitiful.

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Democrats have taken the tactical position that nothing can happen on border security — wall, barriers, slats or whatever included — until government is reopened. In this, they are correct. Negotiating now amounts to rewarding unacceptable behavior. Like paying off kidnappers and terrorists, all you get from such concessions is more of the same misbehavior in the future. This isn’t a new problem, of course. Previous shutdowns were also idiotic — including the one Democrats instigated a year ago in an attempt to help the Dreamers, which, for the record, we opposed at the time. But this one has become the biggest idiocy of all — not just by being the longest but by the insurmountable political polarity of it all with a House Democratic majority elected just weeks ago because they oppose building a wall, up against a president who believes he was elected two years ago to build one..

First things first, let’s stop the play acting with bogus negotiations. President Donald Trump’s offer last Saturday wasn’t serious nor was it a compromise. Calling a wall a “barrier” or offering to give temporary relief to Dreamers — young people living in this country for most of their lives whom the president himself put in peril — isn’t a concession in any meaningful sense of the word. It was fluff, a repackaging of what Mr. Trump has said in the past.

Granted, Trump supporters would likely howl the moment he announces that he’d sign a stop-gap spending bill to put the government back to work. They’d see it as a capitulation to the reviled House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. And building a wall has certainly been a centerpiece of the Trump political rallies — along with getting Mexico to pay for it. But that’s how a politician (or perhaps a child) would see what is actually a complex matter. Should government go back to work and Democrats not find common ground in subsequent negotiations, that’s not some feather in the Pelosi-Schumer cap, that would be evidence they can’t govern responsibly either.

Americans have a right to expect a meaningful dialogue over immigration practices. Not just some mindless chants about walls. Democrats had better be prepared to seriously invest in border security, albeit measures that are actually effective. As much as the problem has been overblown by President Trump — particularly given that, once again, more undocumented immigrants arrived in the U.S. last year by overstaying their visas than by crossing a border illegally — improved border security is not an unreasonable goal. Democrats have made that point repeatedly, so the time is coming for them to put up or shut up. Investments in technology, more staffing, drug-detection equipment and, yes, even physical barriers where appropriate, ought to be on the table.

And one more point. Should all that happen — the Trump shutdown end and Democrats offer billions of dollars in border security upgrades that are demonstrably needed — it should not be scored as a win for liberals or a loss for conservatives or vice versa. What it would be seen as is a rare instance when cooler heads finally prevailed. That wouldn’t decide the 2020 election, or at least it shouldn’t. It would simply end a shutdown crisis that should never have happened in the first place. A pox on all the houses that have ever put this country down a path where government workers and vital programs are used as leverage in budget negotiations. There’s no big victory to be found here. There’s just the potential for a return to rational behavior.

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