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The most penny-ante government shutdown since, well, ever

In the grand scheme of the budget, $5.6 billion is a rounding error

If Shapiro were Nancy Pelosi (and he is not), he’d let Donald Trump have his trompe-l’oeil presidency and walk away with something to show for it. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
If Shapiro were Nancy Pelosi (and he is not), he’d let Donald Trump have his trompe-l’oeil presidency and walk away with something to show for it. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — There have been notable examples of persistence in modern politics, from Joe Biden planning to run for president more than three decades after his first attempt to Jerry Brown becoming California governor after a 28-year hiatus.

But ranking right up there is Nancy Pelosi’s return as House speaker eight years after the 2010 tea party uprising confiscated her gavel. Never before in American history has there been more than a four-year gap between terms as speaker.

After the Democratic midterm sweep, there was glib talk that the opening day of the 116th Congress would revolve around a dramatic challenge to Pelosi for speaker. But the political dictum attributed to former House Speaker Joe Cannon (1903-1911) prevailed: “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.”

Instead, the drama this week will be provided by the eighth government shutdown since Pelosi won a special election to the House in 1987. Even by the standards of Newt Gingrich’s month-long shutdown beginning in late 1995 over conflicting budget estimates, the current impasse is comically penny-ante.

The $5.6 billion that Donald Trump demands for his wailing wall is a rounding error in the budget that ran a $778 billion deficit in 2018. Rather than a battle over money, the current game of wall ball is a fight over a symbol — the wall as a metaphor for Trump’s vicious demonization of Spanish-speaking immigrants, especially legal asylum seekers.

Lamar Alexander, reflecting the freedom of a Republican senator retiring in 2020, got it right when he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “Government shutdowns should be as off-limits to budget negotiations as chemical weapons are to warfare.” But what Alexander neglected to mention was that Trump (egged on by Fox News) derailed a GOP Senate initiative, passed by voice vote, to fund the government until early February.

The scarlet ‘T’

Nothing better symbolizes the self-destructive folly of a government shutdown than the letters that the Office of Personnel Management recommended that furloughed federal workers use to explain their plight to creditors.

It’s like brandishing the red badge of Trump to be forced to write, “I am a Federal employee who has recently been furloughed due to a lack of funding of my agency. Because of this, my income has been severely cut and I am unable to pay the entire cost of my monthly payments.”

Do any of us want to be going through airport security knowing that unpaid federal workers checking for guns and bombs are preoccupied with worries about their cars being repossessed? But empty checking accounts will be the reality on Jan. 11 if employees of the Department of Homeland Security and eight other government departments fail to receive their next government paychecks.

Since the Clinton years, the Democrats, the political party that steadfastly believes in government, have been under intense pressures to settle during protracted federal shutdowns. This Democratic commitment to the orderly functioning of government has been exploited by conservative zealots like Ted Cruz, who led a 16-day 2013 shutdown protesting Obamacare, even though Congress had passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

But Gingrich and Cruz were portraits in rationality compared to Trump.

Trump scuttled a major deal in early 2018 that would have swapped $25 billion in border funding in exchange for legal status for immigrants brought to this country as children without legal papers. These “Dreamers” (whose numbers are somewhere between 700,000 and 1.3 million) had been protected from deportation by Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA.

At the White House Wednesday, Trump sunk efforts by Mike Pence and others to see if congressional Democrats would settle for a wall funding level below the $5.6 billion figure that Trump clings to like a magic incantation. On Capitol Hill, unlike his double-jointed flexibility when it comes to Kim Jong Un, Trump’s nonnegotiable demand appears to be total capitulation.

In truth, for all the wailing about the wall, it would be a boondoggle to the construction industry that probably would matter little in practical terms. Yes, it would be a hateful contrast to the Statue of Liberty, but so is the Trump treatment of children at the border.

Forced perspective

If I were Pelosi or Chuck Schumer (and, most assuredly, I’m not), there are many things that I would try to obtain from Trump and Senate Republicans in exchange for squandering $5.6 billion on that wall that Mexico was supposedly going to pay for.

Begin with full statutory protection for the Robert Mueller investigation and a written pledge that Rod Rosenstein and not Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general, would provide Justice Department supervision.

As has been repeatedly suggested, protection for the DACA eligible would be a fine place to start. (Alas, Trump pointedly rejected this approach Wednesday.)

Another negotiating route would be the appointment of a respected outsider — uncontaminated by any Trump connection — to take charge of the out-of-control deportation efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Also on the agenda should be funding and ensuring humane treatment of those apprehended at the border.

Trump is such a master negotiator that he might settle for a simpler compromise. Since Trump loves to concoct fantasies about how much of his wall has already been built, the Democrats should let him indulge his air-castle dreams.

Under my proposal, the president would sign legislation funding the government through the end of the fiscal year with no additional funding for the wall. But in his State of the Union address, Trump could nonetheless brag (with no mocking laughter from the Democrats) that the entire solar-powered, see-through wall has already been built and it is now considered the 8th Wonder of the World.

Such a deal would fit Trump’s trompe-l’oeil presidency.

Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.Schumer: Trump holding federal employees ‘hostage’

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