The United States government today entered its twenty-seventh day of a partial shutdown in what is now the second-longest shutdown its history. 800,000 government employees have gone without pay, with some such as airport security being expected to work for free as a ‘critical service’. Both sides, Republican President Trump and Democrats in Congress, seem deeply entrenched in their positions. Trump is stating that he will not sign any budget without funding for a border wall. The Democrats saying they will not pass a budget that includes any funding for a border wall. So, what can be done to get out of this mess?
Firstly, a mention about how the U.S. budget works. In the U.K. every year the Chancellor announces how the Treasury will spend its money and that is it. In the United States, however, a budget must pass through Congress like every other law. Given that the Democrats now control one chamber of Congress (the House of Representatives) and the Republicans control the other (the Senate), it was already unlikely that passing a budget would be easy, even before the question of a border wall was raised. The contested issue of the wall makes it even harder.
The most likely solution right now is that President Trump declares a ‘national emergency’ on the border with Mexico, bypassing Congress and moves federal funding from whichever government departments he likes in favour of getting the wall built. The President has already threatened to do just this if he cannot thrash out a deal with Democratic leaders (Senator Chuck Schumer leads the Democrats in the Senate and Speaker Nancy Pelosi leads them in the House ).
It is worth remembering though that Trump literally walked out of a meeting with Schumer and Pelosi because they adamantly rejected to fund the wall. This is the same man who authored a book entitled ‘The Art of the Deal’. It is likely that the President would face immediate legal challenges if he chose to unilaterally declare a ‘national emergency’, but events like this are extremely uncommon so it remains to be seen what would happen.
A second way to break the deadlock would be for President Trump to give in and sign a budget without funding for a border wall. This is the ideal Democrat solution. Democrats are refusing to fund a border wall arguing that its expected $5bn cost could be better spent elsewhere. Not to mention that the President told voters on his presidential campaign Mexico would pay for the wall. There is an outside chance that House Democrats could persuade the Senate to pass a funding bill without border wall funding given that there are some Senate Republicans who disagree with a wall. However, persuading the President to sign a budget without border wall funding seems impossible.
Thirdly, the Democrats could give in and fund Trump’s wall. This seems just as unlikely as Trump accepting no funding for the wall. Democrats might see it in their favour to be the party to end the shutdown by ‘being the bigger man’ and compromising. However, this would severely alienate their voter base while simultaneously empowering Republicans and give them the confidence to hold out on other controversial votes knowing that the Democrats would likely give in. What makes it even more unlikely that the Democrats would be the ones to capitulate is that Donald Trump explicitly said he ‘owned’ the shutdown. Therefore, the Democrats have absolutely no motivation to bring an end to it when Trump’s stubbornness over the wall was the cause in the first place.
The best solution would be for a compromise on both sides. Trump, to his credit, has backed down from the wall being a concrete barrier. At the request of Democrats, any ‘wall’ that is built will be a steel barrier much like most of the border fencing that already exists rather than a physical concrete wall. On their part, Democrats might agree to partially fund the wall in order to maintain some sort of control over proceedings (there has been a rumour that a Democrat budget might include an amount like $2bn rather than the full $5bn the President is asking for). Either way, the only real losers from this deadlock are average, hardworking people who are not getting their payslips each week the government is shut down. The political class would do well to see the consequences their actions are causing.