Going to the Wall on Shutdown

This Friday, if politics — otherwise known as the art of the possible — fails to produce a compromise on funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, the federal government will shut down for the third time in less than two years.

The seemingly irresistible force of President Donald Trump’s proposal for $5 billion has met the seemingly immovable object of a Democratic refusal. So far, neither side is backing down.

This is, of course, a formula for federal shutdown. For if the House and Senate cannot agree on passage of a spending bill by the end of the week that includes some figure for greater security on the border, the consequence will be that dreaded event called shutdown.

The president said during a meeting with Democratic leaders Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security.”

Pelosi, for her part, professed horror at the thought, intoning that “shutdown is not worth anything.”

But much as the Democrats say they want to spare the nation another shutdown, they were not budging, and Schumer subsequently vowed that the president “will not get his wall.” The amount the Democrats have committed to is only sufficient to maintain current security on the border, but would not pay for a wall.

Both sides know very well that a governmental shutdown will reflect badly on their leadership. Yet, they are willing to countenance that risk for a number of reasons.

For one, the president believes that the principle of border security on which he has staked so much of his political capital is worth it. He also thinks he has the votes in Congress to get it passed.

The Democrats doubt he has the votes; and if it turns out he doesn’t, they will do as the president has expressly invited them to do — blame him for it. As he told Schumer in a moment remarkable for its political daring, “I’m not going to blame you for it.”

Another reason why brinksmanship is the order of the day is that the stakes are actually not as high as the term shutdown implies. If it comes, it will only be a partial one.

Funding bills for three quarters of the $1.2 trillion in operating expenses for federal agencies have already been approved. So, only some agencies would be affected by Black Friday.

Current funding for Homeland Security, the Justice Department and dozens of other departments and agencies are due to expire automatically if budgetary legislation is not passed in time. But even then, security and other vital services would not collapse, as essential employees would still be expected to report for work. Customs and border agents will be at their stations at border crossings.

Social Security benefits, Medicare, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program will not suffer disruption, at least in the short term, drawing on carryover money in the states or while federal accounts remain available.

The airlines, as well, would continue operations, Amtrak would be running and the postal service would deliver mail.

But the cost should not be underestimated. Approximately 400,000 federal employees would work without pay and 350,000 would be furloughed, according to a congressional Democratic aide. After previous shutdowns, Congress passed legislation to retroactively pay furloughed workers, but there are no guarantees.

National parks and federally run museums might have to close their gates. During the Jan. 20-22 shutdown, the gates stayed open but staff reductions meant visitors and park resources were left somewhat unprotected.

In dollars, one can only guess, but the 16-day full government shutdown in October 2013 cost the economy $24 billion, according to Standard and Poor’s. GDP was down because of unpaid workers spending less. The Office of Management and Budget estimated the shutdown cost $2 billion in lost productivity. National parks alone lost about $500 million in revenue in the visitor-less days.

The psychology of brinksmanship is such that since it’s only a partial shutdown, lawmakers are more willing to risk it than if it were a complete shutdown. (Even though it didn’t stop them in 2013.)

As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told The Wall Street Journal CEO Council earlier his month, “I don’t think we’ll get to that point.” And he’s reportedly telling Senate colleagues that he has no interest in a shutdown.

Despite the prevailing mood of intransigence, some are talking compromise. Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican, said “There’s been some prior votes out there where I think $4 billion, $20 billion over five years has been discussed. And we’re talking even less than that. And we can get there.”

Whether that or some other form of compromise is worked out, there’s still reason to be hopeful that Washington will succeed in averting the crisis.