Blog No.168. Shutdown: What Happened and What Now?

Most readers of have probably seen and read a great deal—more than they might have wished—about what happened. They will have followed in varying degrees the ups and downs of abortive negotiations leading up to the shutdown, then more negotiations and the end of the shutdown—at least for now. It would tax the patience of both the reader and the writer to reprise that chronology. But perhaps there is room to offer some tentative thoughts on who was to blame for the shutdown and what might happen next.

There is more than enough blame to share among Democrats, Republicans and the President. The most obvious target for blame is the Democrats who created the shutdown by voting against a continuing resolution (CR) required to keep funding in place and the doors of the government open. Shutdowns are a bad idea that should be expunged from the playbooks of both parties. Shutdowns cause hardship to individuals in and out of the government, and if they continue for any length of time, they are costly to the economy. Moreover, shutdowns hardly ever achieve any positive result in terms of politics or policy. They may feel good for a while, and tickle the appetites of the political base, but those “benefits” are inevitably short-lived. Finally, shutdowns contribute significantly to the loss of confidence in the government by the American public and in countries around the world.

On the other hand, Republicans also merit a major share of the blame. To begin with, in a point little discussed by the media, they are responsible for creating the vulnerability to a shutdown by relying on continuing resolutions rather than passing appropriations bills in regular order. Use of continuing resolutions, of course, is neither recent nor uniquely Republican; they have been used and over-used for many years. But when a party controls both houses of Congress and the Presidency, there should be little need for that maneuver. Republicans may say that they don’t completely control the Senate because, with a narrow margin of a two vote majority and the availability the filibuster, they need Democratic support to pass anything. Quite so, and the obvious answer is to act in a bi-partisan manner and reach reasonable compromises.

Republicans also bear responsibility for their failure to address the policy issue that gave rise to the shutdown: treatment of the “Dreamers,” protected under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Although Trump terminated the DACA program, he stated that he wanted to protect the Dreamers and invited Congress to do so. Many Republicans in the House and Senate have also voiced support for the Dreamers, as did virtually all Democrats, so why was nothing done? It appears that some Republicans were unwilling to protect the Dreamers, and some who were willing wanted to extract a heavy price for doing so. The price included not only funding a massive border wall as described by the President (the Trump Wall), but also restricting various modes of legal immigration including chain migration (Family Reunification) and the visa lottery (Diversity Visa Program).

The Trump Wall is an expensive and unnecessary project for which many Republicans have little enthusiasm but lend their support, in varying degrees, out of obeisance to the President (and to the nativist element of their own base). There is broad support in both parties for enhancing border security, including physical barriers in some locations, but building hundreds of miles of wall makes little sense as a means of interdicting either migrants or drug traffickers.

Finally, considerable blame for the shutdown must be assigned to President Trump for his singularly inept performance as a negotiator. The several positions of the vaunted deal maker were expressed so incoherently, and changed so often, that neither Republicans nor Democrats could figure out just what they were at any point in time. In the end, he performed most constructively by simply staying out of sight and out of the process.

After the shutdown ended, various pundits undertook to assess winners and losers. Several suggested that Republicans and Trump had “won” because the shutdown had ended without the Democrats getting much in return. They had a point. The Democrats accepted a somewhat vague promise by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a DACA bill to be debated and voted on, but there was no telling what such a bill would look like or how vulnerable it might be to crippling amendments. And in the House, home to some of the fiercest anti-immigration warriors, Democrats really had no assurance as to what Speaker Ryan would do or allow. On the other hand, Democrats did not give up much either (and they received the collateral benefit of funding for the CHIP program). The current CR will expire on February 8 and if Democrats do not see reasonable progress, another shutdown may ensue.

On Thursday, the President doubled down on the strategy of holding the Dreamers hostage for border wall funding and various immigration restrictions. Although the details of the President’s proposal have not been released, the White House did provide a summary memo.  According to the memo, the proposal is surprisingly generous in two respects. First, it offers the Dreamers not only legal status but a pathway to citizenship over a 10-12 year period. Second, it would also protect not only the estimated 700,000 individuals currently in the DACA program, but another 1.1 million who were eligible but did not apply, a total of 1.8 million. Those provisions may well draw vigorous opposition from immigration hawks in the House and Senate. On the other hand, immigration activists will object to various other elements of the proposal.

Chief among those other elements is the creation of a “$25 billion trust fund for the border wall system, ports of entry/exit, and northern border improvements and enhancements.” Nevertheless, the initial paragraph of the memo acknowledged that border security requires “a combination of physical infrastructure, technology, personnel [and] resources.” Thus as NPR pointed out, the “border wall system” does not necessarily involve “the coast-to-coast physical structure on the Southern border that Trump promised at campaign rallies.” It may be a point of negotiation as to what portion of the $25 billion is tied clearly and irrevocably to the Trump Wall itself.

The proposal also addresses issues of legal immigration involving chain migration and the visa lottery. The modification of chain migration would limit family sponsorships to spouses and minor children only. The visa lottery would be eliminated and visas would be reallocated “to reduce the family-based ‘backlog’ and high-skilled employment ‘backlog.’” Contrary to the provision of the Graham-Durbin proposal that had provoked a vulgar response from Trump, those visas would not be allocated to refugees from Haiti and El Salvador whose protection under the Temporary Protected Status Program Trump had previously ended. There may be legitimate arguments for restricting chain migration and eliminating the visa lottery, and grounds for debating how visas should be reallocated, but those issues have no connection to the DACA problem. Many will argue, therefore, that they should be considered on their own merits as a part of comprehensive immigration reform, and not piggy-backed on a solution to the unique DACA problem.

Details of the President’s proposal are reportedly scheduled for release on Monday, but that release will certainly not end the debate. A narrower proposal may, for example, emerge from the Common Sense Coalition, a group of 23 centrist Senators who had met in the office of Maine’s Republican Senator Susan Collins and helped to engineer an end to the shutdown. After the shutdown ended, the Coalition remained determined to find a legislative solution to the DACA impasse. Indeed, several of its members expressed the hope that they might have a broader influence in restoring the reputation of the Senate as a place for thoughtful debate and bi-partisan cooperation.

If the Coalition does formulate an alternative proposal, it could have a significant impact on the outcome. Although the President’s proposal was said to be offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, that posture may not be sustainable. As the New York Times reported:

Republican and Democratic senators are working on a narrower immigration plan of their own, hoping that if it can pass the Senate with a strong, bipartisan majority, it would be Mr. Trump who would have the take-it-or-leave-it decision.

However that may be, a sign of bi-partisan cooperation is a development to be welcomed and encouraged. Most articles in the media identified some but not all of the members of the Coalition, but each deserves recognition and applause:

Republicans. Lamar Alexander, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Cory Gardner, Lindsey Graham, Johnny Isakson, Lisa Murkowski, Mike Rounds.

Democrats. Chris Coons, Joe Donnelly, Maggie Hassan, Heidi Heitkamp, Doug Jones, Tim Kaine, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Manchin, Claire McCaskill, Bill Nelson, Gary Peters, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Warner.

Independent (caucuses with Democrats). Angus King

Although it is an honor that few, if any, would accept, we salute the members of the Coalition as Honorary RINOs of the week and hope for their success. As the New York Times observed:

If successful, the bipartisan push could become a model for taking on stubborn issues in the future, one that engages a broader range of voices and ideas from both parties in the outcome. But if it fails, it could mean that intense partisanship has pushed the Senate into a place where even the most determined efforts cannot save it.

Honorary RINO Award for Common Sense Coalition

4 thoughts on “Blog No.168. Shutdown: What Happened and What Now?

  • Great essay.

    While extremely important, the DACA problem — one created by our horrific president — pales in significance to the rise in poverty and income inequality in the United States. See Matt Black’s photo essay in Time magazine, “The Geography of Poverty.”

    The current Taxation Without Representation system must be aboliished (beginning a ban on gerrymandering). The United States must really become the “land of opportunity.”

    The Common Sense Coalition of Senators is a most welcome step in the right direction.

  • I am fed up with the refusal to consider the merits of DACA, for example, independent of a multitude of unrelated issues, the wall and tightening border security. You called this hostage taking and that’s just right, but neither party has been able to refrain from trading your vote for this in exchange for my vote for that. Yuck!

  • Nicely presented and fair balanced!
    I believe, as most Americans that the children of illegal immigrants, and those children born in our country should ALL have an entre’ to citizenship and the accrued benefits of that status.
    The status of the parents , for me, is the imponderable . Who will be responsible for these young people if the parents must leave? What are we to do with illegal children that arrive without parents?
    A conundrum!
    For a few years, I was the CEO of a Houston based Corp. that operated a few small hospitals and a communications company. I recall the stream of young women crossing the border to have their childern born here and by birth, become a citizen. The women often returned to their Mexican homes after birthing and shortly thereafter skirted the immigration folks and were now allowed to stay.
    If I were a young unmarried pregnant Mexican female, I would have done the exact same routine.
    One essential key to our porous immigration policies is to stop this migration, and accept those that currently live here,
    It is easy to deal with anonymous numbers, but so very hard to expel anyone as an individual.
    Churchill said it best….”an enigma wrapped etc.etc”
    Thanks for listening,
    P.s. Even diehard economic conservatives have hearts.

  • As always, Doug, cogent thoughts. That said, mark Feb. 8th on your calendar for another shutdown. There are too many My Way or the Highway members of both houses of Congress to reach an agreement. Common sense, an uncommon virtue.

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