Trump, Republicans Disagree With Democrats and Shut Down the Government
About a third of all federal employees got a longer holiday break than they expected because of a political dispute that closed much of the U.S. government.
One person on the federal payroll who did report to work was President Trump, who remained in the White House on Christmas Day rather than joining family members at his golf resort in Florida. He told reporters that the shutdown would not end “until we have a wall or a fence” along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president said he could not predict when the government will reopen. He vowed that it will not happen until Democrats agree to provide a multibillion-dollar appropriation for the wall. Trump described the border barrier, which he said could be a wall or a fence, as essential in the effort to stop illegal immigration and stem the flow of drugs from other countries. He claimed that many federal employees have told him to continue holding out for the funding.
Trump announced he would attend a Texas ground-breaking event in late January for a section of the wall that a crew is erecting. He expressed hope of erecting or upgrading between 500 and 550 miles of fencing by the time voters go to the polls in November 2020.
What Caused the Shutdown?
As the deadline for averting a shutdown neared in mid-December, Congress appeared to be on the verge of agreeing to a continuing budget resolution. The measure would have extended current funding levels for government operations until lawmakers could negotiate a longer-term deal.
The top two Democrats on Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, previously told the president during a televised meeting at the White House that there were enough votes to pass the temporary appropriations bill. However, they said a minority of lawmakers favored the $5 billion that Trump wanted for the wall.
The president initially indicated he would sign a spending measure that did not fund the wall. He quickly changed his mind, following sharp criticism from prominent conservative commentators who had staunchly supported the administration. Throughout his 2016 race for the White House, and since entering the office, Trump has vowed to build the wall and “make Mexico pay for it.”
Mexican officials’ repeated refusals to provide the financing led the president to turn to Congress for the money, though he claims the recently revamped North American Free Trade Agreement will extract the necessary funds from the United States’ southern neighbor.
Democrats consented to provide $1.3 billion for the wall as part of a continuing resolution. The day after the shutdown began on Dec. 21, Mick Mulvaney (the administration’s budget chief and newly named acting White House chief of staff) proposed a compromise between that figure and Trump’s proposed $5 billion.
Schumer immediately rejected the offer, arguing that the two sides were still “very far apart.” Trump called the situation a “disgrace,” but wished Americans “a very Merry Christmas.”
What Was the Impact of the Shutdown?
Not many Americans noticed any changes in the first few days of the office closures since numerous government operations were already suspended until after Christmas. Real impacts began Wednesday morning.
The shutdown applied to about a quarter of the government workforce, including staffers in the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Agriculture, Justice, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security. Congress had already funded the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services.
Closures went into effect at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Drug Administration; NASA; offices that issue passports and visas; public-health clinics; Small Business Administration sites; farm service centers; and most of the Internal Revenue Service’s customer-service offices.
More than 420,000 law-enforcement employees faced a delay in their paychecks. Among them were personnel in the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Agency; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
An additional 380,000 government workers received furloughs without financial compensation. Congress was to decide whether to reimburse them in a provision of the next appropriations bill.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue promised that Americans on public assistance would continue to receive benefits. However, the shutdown threatened to idle about 95 percent of employees in the food and nutrition services division, which issues food stamps and runs the Women, Infants and Children program.
Perdue noted that there was enough money in the pipeline to cut checks through the end of February for food stamps, as well as child-nutrition programs like school breakfasts and lunches. He said his department would continue to inspect meat, eggs and food products the United States imports from other countries. There were to be no interruptions in the monitoring of disease and flu outbreaks, or in the enforcement of drug and food recalls.
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid payments did not stop, and the U.S. Postal Service kept delivering mail.
How Often Does This Happen?
The crisis was far from the first time that a partisan battle over government funding priorities disrupted federal operations. There have been a dozen shutdowns since the late 1970s, including one nearly every year under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
The next such incident occurred during the Columbus Day holiday weekend in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush and his fellow Republicans were able to iron out their differences with congressional Democrats within three days.
A much more consequential shutdown took place in November 1995, when lawmakers butted heads with Democratic President Bill Clinton over increasing Medicare premiums and balancing the federal budget. Both parties agreed to temporarily solve the problem by funding key parts of the government for another month, but the shutdown resumed a month later and lasted three weeks.
According to the Pew Research Center, the office closures cost taxpayers about $2.1 billion (in inflation-adjusted 2018 terms). Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich received most of the blame.
In October 2013, with Barack Obama in the White House, a debate over funding for the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) triggered a 16-day shutdown. About 850,000 federal workers were placed on furloughs, and the Congressional Research Service estimated the cost at more than $2.5 billion.
The next shutdown was from Jan. 20-22, 2018, when Republicans and Democrats were at odds over DACA and other issues. Nearly 800,000 government employees got furloughs until there was consensus on immigration matters and a commitment to finance the Children Health Insurance Program for another six years.
What Is the Way Out of the Impasse?
Mulvaney warned that the shutdown would not end until sometime in January. By then, Democrats were to hold the majority in the House of Representatives as a result of their candidates having taken 40 seats from Republicans in the November mid-term elections. The Senate and the White House remained under GOP control.
A Democratic House could complicate efforts to strike a budget deal. The party’s leaders claim the wall is unnecessary and would be a waste of money. Instead, they advocate other methods of securing the border, along with major immigration-policy reforms like a “path to citizenship” for those living in the United States illegally.
The president insisted on Tuesday that the wall would be effective in blocking illegal migrants. He jokingly acknowledged that an Olympic athlete might be able to scale the wall, but said most people would fail. The president repeated his pledge that the government will not reopen without funding for the barrier. He warned that the shutdown could last “a very long” time.
Some political pundits believed that Democrats would grant the president’s wishes concerning the wall only if Republicans went along with saving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Trump has threatened to end DACA, which allows undocumented foreigners who were brought to the United States as children to remain in the country as long as they are employed or in school.
The Senate was scheduled to be back in session on the Thursday after Christmas. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said there would be no vote on a spending bill before both parties endorsed a compromise on wall funding.
Pelosi proclaimed that government offices would not re-open until Republicans dropped their $5 billion demand for the barrier. The California Democrat, who was the House speaker the last time Democrats controlled the chamber (from 2009-2013), was in line to regain the powerful position after the holidays.
Just before Christmas, Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday” that the shutdown would not end soon because Trump “refuses to go along to get along.” The official suggested that the shutdown could extend past Dec. 28 and persist until well after the seating of the next Congress. He accused Pelosi of being beholden to her party’s most liberal members, who do not want her agree with Trump on any issue.
On Christmas Day, Trump said Democrats will eventually realize that an ongoing shutdown costs taxpayers more money than the amount he is requesting for the wall.