Analysis: Gridlock Endures amid Record-Breaking US Government Shutdown

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The following piece of analysis is taken directly from our RiskMonitor platform.

Introduction and Overview

Longest Shutdown in History

The longest partial government shutdown in modern US history showed no signs of ending as of Wednesday, 16 January, as it entered its 26th consecutive day. The shutdown exceeded over the weekend the length of the previous record holder during the Clinton administration, with many now casting aside previous predictions about the impasse as it enters uncharted territory.

While President Donald Trump continues to demand USD5.7 billion for the construction of a wall along the southern border as part of any new appropriations legislation to fund the federal government, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives under Speaker Nancy Pelosi has held fast in its refusal to do so.

Though both the House and the Republican-controlled Senate have passed bills re-authorising government spending for the various shuttered departments and agencies, neither of those bills have included funding for the wall, and Trump has thus refused to consider them.

Furthermore, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stated that he will not to allow a Senate vote on any new such legislation that does not come with Trump’s prior commitment to sign it, in what appears to be a semi-coordinated Republican strategy to push for the wall.

Those worst affected

The funding lapse in question, which began on 22 December, concerns only certain areas of the US federal government, as other departments and agencies had already seen their funding renewed in prior legislation. Thus, the current partial shutdown has affected the Departments of Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Transportation as well as much of the White House itself. Federal rules dictate that, even in the event of a shutdown, those employees deemed “essential” must still report to work despite not being guaranteed a paycheck.

Such employees are generally vital to national security and other critical areas, including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the US Coast Guard (USCG), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and others. Those deemed “non-essential” in affected agencies and departments are generally furloughed, in which case they are instructed to not report to work again until further notice, again without guarantee of pay.

In this particular instance, however, Congress has already passed legislation dictating that all federal employees affected by the shutdown will retroactively be paid once the shutdown is over.

The question has now become when exactly the shutdown will end, as Trump has previously mused that it could last for “months or years”, though the latter timeframe is exceedingly unlikely even amid the current political dysfunction.

Current and Potential Effects

While most shutdowns have in the past caused a number of headaches but have not raised any national security worries, the length of the ongoing partial shutdown has generated some concerns. Due to the high volumes of TSA workers calling in “sick” to protest lack of pay, some airports have opted to shutdown entire terminals, while others have reported security wait times far beyond general averages.

TSA leadership has maintained that, despite these delays, security and thoroughness have not been compromised during airport screenings. However, as “sick-outs” continue to increase, there is worry among some quarters that either the quality of screenings could be affected in terms of much higher screener-to-passenger ratios or, at the very least, that extreme travel headaches could proliferate due to longer wait times and terminal closures.

Elsewhere, the federal government has announced plans to essentially re-activate thousands of furloughed workers in recognition of the fact that the current shutdown has lasted so long that even those initially deemed “non-essential” are again needed.

Certain national parks have remained shut down or else partially open, with state governments in some places stepping in to pay the federal government’s share to keep sites open for visitors, again reflecting how varied and uneven the effects of the partial shutdown continue to be.

Border Security and “The Wall”

The issue of the wall has been a longstanding one since Trump first made it part of his presidential campaign platform in mid-2015 in the name of stemming illegal immigration and the flow of drugs into the US.

Once in the White House, he was unable to make significant headway despite having Republican majorities in both houses of Congress due to resistance even within the Republican Party; a wall spanning the literal entirety of the southern border has been labelled a waste of money by some and a technological near-impossibility by others due to the topography along parts of the US-Mexico frontier.

In the lead-up to the November midterms which saw Republicans lose control of the House, Trump attempted to make border security a key issue by drawing attention in interviews and on social media to the so-called “caravans” of migrants, generally from Central America, who were crossing through Mexico to attempt to seek asylum in the US.

Trump’s return to the immigration theme, however, was perhaps a misfire, as it did not save the House from falling to Democrats and it renewed criticism from within his own base that, two years into his presidency, he had not accomplished his core pledge of a southern border wall.

Generally accepted conjecture is that it was this pressure – particularly from key conservative commentators – that suddenly caused Trump to play hardball and make border wall funding a non-negotiable within the context of re-authorising federal government funding, as even through mid-December he had reportedly agreed to a renewal of such funding without money for the border wall.

Current polling data indicates that a majority of the US public both blames Trump for the shutdown and does not support Trump’s wall, though these statistics must also be viewed through the lens of political polarisation.

A more nuanced breakdown shows a strong majority of those identifying as blaming congressional Democrats while supporting Trump’s wall, and a strong majority of those identifying as Democrats blame Trump and congressional Republicans for the shutdown and are, unsurprisingly, against the wall. Independents have trended similar to the Democratic consensus but by a much narrower majority.

Thus, in pushing for the wall, Trump is in essence making a move to shore up his base – as well as Republicans more broadly – as he unofficially enters 2020 re-election campaign mode, now that the 2018 midterms have passed. Because the wall was in many ways the signature issue of his 2016 campaign, it has taken on a symbolism that arguably far outweighs its actual importance and effectiveness, much less its feasibility.

To this end, Trump has gone so far as to suggest that he could declare a “national emergency” and use executive authority to re-appropriate funds for the wall. He has since walked back that idea while maintaining his absolute right to employ it, especially after it came under heavy fire following reports that the White House was studying moving funds from reconstruction efforts in post-hurricane Puerto Rico and post-wildfire California to build the wall.

Many Republicans also decried the strategy, noting that beyond certain constitutional concerns, it could set the precedent of a future – potentially Democratic – president using the pretext of a national emergency to bypass Congress and achieve funding for any issue deemed important enough by the executive.

What’s next?

Predictions regarding a way forward are at this stage difficult to make, amid ongoing closed-door conversations among both Democrats and Republicans as well as between them. A proposal floated recently to re-open the government for a handful of weeks to essentially extend the deadline for negotiations over border security and longer-term appropriations was flat out rejected by Trump, indicating that he continues to believe that hardball tactics will ultimately produce a winning outcome.

Problematically for him, however, is that Pelosi and others in the Democratic leadership believe their hand is an equally winning one, citing opinion polls as well as the fact that both chambers of Congress have already passed appropriations bills that would reopen the government.

Theoretically, both chambers could pass such legislation with a two-thirds majority that would allow them to override a presidential veto, but McConnell’s refusal to bring such legislation even to a vote as well as the fact that is unclear if 18 Republican senators and dozens of Republican representatives would vote so explicitly against Trump’s wishes make this scenario exceedingly unlikely, at least for the moment.

Indeed, the most likely scenario is that the shutdown will continue indefinitely until public anger over airport delays, park closures and general slowness at the federal level causes one side or the other to cave. Logic would seem to indicate that that side would be Trump due to opinion polls being overall against him on the shutdown, but his well-known insistence on avoiding looking “weak” may ultimately cause the Democrats to blink first.

The timing and pathway to ending the shutdown, however, remain conjecture at best.

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