The Government Shutdown; or, An Artificial Crisis

On the heels of a government shutdown this weekend, the Washington blame game is in full effect. The Republicans are blaming Democrats for being too focused on illegal immigrants, while Democrats suggest that the GOP is holding CHIP hostage as leverage. Who is right, and who is wrong? In many ways, one person in particular seems to have fomented this crisis.

To understand all the moving pieces to this debate, we must look back to the beginning of the 2016 election cycle. Donald Trump stood out in the Republican primaries because of his hardline stance on immigration, a position which the GOP writ large did not necessarily hold. The fact that about a dozen of the Republicans running had indistinguishable opinions on the matter created enough space for Trump to stake out a unique position and weave his way toward the nomination.

The most obvious policy position he advocated was The Wall™ that Mexico would fund. Chants of “build that wall” echoed during his rallies, and that bellowing chant encapsulated the energy of his supporters. What matters, in this case, is that he went on to garner the votes of Republicans who did not necessarily want a wall, or otherwise thought it improbable. For many others, the idea of the wall, be it digital or even just the sentiment, was enough for their support.

That is one facet of this shutdown that has put the president in a bind. He perceives his victory in 2016 as largely attributable to his strong support from his base, which represented maybe 35% or so of Republicans. Those voters upon whom he most depends are hardline on the immigration matter, while the party as a whole is more dovish.

DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, demonstrates this divide. While 40% of Republicans oppose the idea of legal status, 50% favor it. That statistic alone should elucidate why Republicans in Congress, let alones Democrats, cannot strike a deal. The majority of elected Republicans probably favor DACA, but the most important Republican, the one in the Oval Office, does not. According to the New York Times, Trump has come close to a deal with Democratic Minority Leader Schumer, but hardliners in his administration have backed him away, likely worrying about the implications with his most ardent supporters. While widely considered a calming force in this tumultuous White House, Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly is a hardliner himself on immigration policy.

That brief overview provides a glimpse into the mindset of the White House during this whole debacle. Basically, the president is caught between a rock and a hard place. He does not want a government shutdown, but he also feels as if there is no room to budge on immigration. Hardliners like Kelly, Senator Tom Cotton and Stephen Miller likely bolster this belief.

  Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO

Senator Claire McCaskill, D-MO

The GOP has also made a point of noting that the military will not receive funding during this shutdown, something the Pentagon in particular is worried about -- allocating funds on a day-to-day basis is wasteful and far less efficient than long-term spending plans. But who voted against a measure to pay troops, a bill to be passed by unanimous consent? Democrat Claire McCaskill offered it up, but Leader McConnell opposed it, which means the armed forces will go without pay. Obviously, both parties want to continue to pay the military, but to allow a vote on the measure would cede the Republican advantage in negotiations.

But that only explains one side of the issue while the Republicans tout another piece of leverage. Republican Majority Leader McConnell has framed the debate as a binary choice, between CHIP, or Children’s Health Insurance Program, versus DACA. McConnell says that, with the shutdown, CHIP will expire today, while DACA has until March to be sorted. That may be true, but it is also misleading.

When did CHIP authorization need to be renewed? It wasn’t Friday at 11:59PM, but rather back in September of 2017. If you recall, the Republican-led Congress was in the midst of repealing the Affordable Care Act, and during that ordeal the program expired. Many observers have noted that this is the first instance where the party with unified control of government has led to a shutdown. Republicans contest the value of this claim, since the budget requires 60 votes in a Senate where the GOP only has 51.

But who sets the agenda in Washington? It is the majority party, and particularly Leader McConnell who bears the responsibility. CHIP expired during their push to repeal the ACA, and as it kept getting pushed down the road, it became a point of leverage in the budget debate. Chuck Todd, on Meet the Press, rightly pointed out to Senator Bill Cassidy that CHIP need not be in this debate, and that a standalone vote for CHIP should pass easily.

There is no good answer for the decision not to vote on CHIP because it is the strongest bargaining position for the GOP, one which McConnell would be foolish to drop. Cassidy himself said that the six-year reauthorization for CHIP was included because “they thought that Democrats would care enough about CHIP that maybe it would bring them onboard.” Regardless of how important the program is to both parties, in that telling quote Cassidy basically admits that the program is “being held hostage” as a bargaining ploy, which Nancy Pelosi tweeted about.

  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY

CHIP may be a pressing issue that the Congress needs to solve, but only because the GOP passed the buck up until this point. Whether it was a malicious attempt to gain the higher ground or just a result of dysfunction during the ACA repeal effort, the health insurance of millions of children is now bound to the results of the DACA standoff.

Again, both DACA and CHIP are popular programs, and independent of this shutdown mess would probably pass in a fairly bipartisan manner. The issue, then, is the exact characteristic the president possesses that catapulted him to victory: impulsiveness. The president is expected to be volatile, to shake up Washington, to “Drain the Swamp” or what have you; the issue with that trait is that in situations like the shutdown, all sides need to know what goal toward which to work.

For example, if Republicans knew that the president would sign a bill they sent him which provided legal status to the Dreamers, those protected under DACA, the crisis would have likely been averted. As far as we know, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell would be willing to pass both DACA and CHIP protections, but they would rather trudge through the shutdown than risk sending something that is dead-on-arrival to Trump’s desk.

With all that background, it seems hard to see where the shutdown could end amicably. The president may think he has the most leverage, and indeed he alone could sink the whole plan, but he is also of the belief both historically and from recent reporting that the president will be blamed for a government that he heads shutting down.

Democrats may not have wanted to shut the government down, but DACA is popular enough and the majority of both the party and country believe in it strongly enough that they have chosen this as their final stand on the matter. They certainly believed that CHIP would be sorted out given more time to negotiate, but it seems doubtful that they fall for that trap again on DACA.