Shutdown Victory? It’s in the Eye of the Beholder

Politics is known as the art of compromise. But not all art deserves to be hung on a museum wall.

Republicans and Democrats finally reached a compromise on the border wall dispute this week, but from all perspectives the esthetics were somewhat lacking.

At first look, President Donald Trump was unenthused: “I can’t say I’m happy, I can’t say I’m thrilled.” But encouragement came later at a cabinet meeting in the White House: “I don’t think you’re going to see a shutdown,” he said.

The appraisal by Republican leaders was more positive from the start. Senator Richard Shelby, the senior Republican negotiator, called it “a pretty good deal.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “certainly good news.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged President Trump to sign the deal. The “parameters … are good,” he said, and Mr. Trump “must sign it.”

The parameters’ positives are in the eye of the beholder, of course. The Democrats see lots of goodness in the language of the bill, which meticulously omits the contentious word “wall.”

There will be no “wall,” they say. Only fencing, limited to “currently deployed” technologies such as bollard fencing, and none of the several versions of a solid wall that the administration had sought.

“We’ve always been for fencing,” Schumer said, “but this doesn’t allow for a concrete wall of any kind.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — whose anti-wall rhetoric had been among the most extreme, comparing the president’s immigration policy to Nazi Germany — found her own terminology, saying the proposal would pay for “fencing in Texas.” She didn’t even mention “border,” or what kind of fencing

The details of the deal are such as to allow both sides to climb down from their absolutist positions and at the same time claim victory.

By Tuesday night, the president had warmed to the deal considerably. “I’m thrilled,” he said, “because we’re supplementing things and moving things around, and we’re doing things that are fantastic, taking from far less important areas. And the bottom line is we’re building a lot of wall.” He tweeted that “hooked up with lots of money from other sources,” he would be “getting almost $23 billion for Border Security. Regardless of Wall money, it is being built as we speak!”

How he arrived at the $23 billion figure was not clear, but apparently it was a reference to a provision for another $750 million in “transfer authority,” and some senators have been quoted on the possibility of taking nearly $900 million worth of Defense Department anti-trafficking funds for “the wall.”

But when asked by reporters on Wednesday about the deal, the president said only that he would be taking “a very serious look,” and declined to tip his hand. Yet if he does, as expected, back it, he can certainly claim victory, since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said in mid-shutdown that “there’s not going to be any wall money” in the bill, “not one penny, not one dollar.” And Pelosi and friends can still insist that they haven’t given in to funding a wall.

Call it what you will — a wall or a fence — it’s a compromise. And the grim, unaesthetic fact remains that the whole agonizing thing could have been settled without any shutdown at all.

Had the politicians involved been better schooled in the art of compromise, they might well have hit on the very same finesse of language and some of the financial workarounds that eventually emerged. Because of their artlessness (and disinclination to concede anything to the other side), the whole country was put through a costly “partial” shutdown.

An estimated $9 billion in pay was withheld from federal employees during the 35-day shutdown, the longest in U.S. history. Almost a quarter of those workers were forced to reduce or eliminate spending on health or medical expenses, and one in four visited a food bank and 26 percent said they dipped into retirement funds to get through it, according to a survey by Prudential Financial.

While furloughed employees will receive back pay, private businesses impacted by the shutdown have no such recourse.

The Internal Revenue Service was open, but barely. Taxpayers couldn’t get frozen refunds, or present hardship cases while facing fines, or resolve audits of past tax returns. To add aggravation to aggravation, staffing shortages meant that only a fraction of calls to the IRS were actually answered.

At the end, though, it must be said in defense of the lawmakers in Washington that at least they understood that a second round of shutdown-in-lieu-of-compromise would have been irresponsible. Ultimately, they were able to put aside personal and partisan prestige and yield to the public interest.

Even if it was only an enlightened self-interest.

Faced with angry constituents on both sides, with a nation fed up with dysfunctional feds, they did what had to be done. Both for the good of the people, and for their own political good. And there’s nothing wrong with that.