Donald Trump campaigned to drain the Washington swamp. It appears as though he is drowning in it. Whether the billionaire truly intended to fix Washington or it was just a campaign slogan to be forgotten later, by now he must have realized that the system is too broken to fix.
For almost four months, the political class in Washington has been threatening to shutter the federal government in a ferociously partisan budget standoff.
It defies logic how politicians can shut down a $4-trillion enterprise, and affect millions of people in the process, just to score political points.
How did this happen? Congress and the White House attempted several times to strike a spending deal. But as always, partisanship and brinkmanship got in the way. A midnight deadline passed on Friday, the government ran out of money and it officially entered a shutdown. It lasted nearly three full days.
It was the first government shutdown of the Trump administration and it crashed on the president just as he was about to celebrate his first anniversary in office. Trump canceled his planned trip for a high-dollar gala at his “winter White House” in Florida, and instead remained in Washington firing off angry tweets.
The self-proclaimed drainer of the swamp made the matter much more complicated by taking the budget hostage.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate were holding rare weekend sessions to try to forge a compromise. At issue was Democrats’ demand to include protections for young undocumented immigrants – known as DACA– in any spending bill. But Trump made it clear he would only accept a deal on immigration if Democrats agreed to include funding for his long-promised border wall in the budget.
Senate Democrats were the ones who blinked first, much to the disappointment of Dreamers. Fearing the consequences for their reelection, they agreed to vote to reopen the government after Republican leader Mitch McConnell promised to hold a debate on immigration in the future.
But immigration has been just a sideshow in this never-ending political game in Washington, where politicians spare no effort to demonstrate to their respective constituents, donors and lobbyists that they mean business.
Immigrant advocates were outraged by the new spending deal reached on Monday afternoon.
It was Trump’s first shutdown, will it be his last?
The deal will only fund the government through February 8. That essentially sets the stage for another budget showdown in just two and half weeks. In other words, congressional leaders just kicked the can further down the road one more time.
It is worth taking stock of why there is still no federal budget in place four months into the fiscal year, which begs the question of why this shutdown happened in the first place. It matters because it may not be the last shutdown of Trump’s presidency.
The US government has been shuttered several times in the modern budget era. But this time it was quite unprecedented for one big reason: It happened at a time when one party – Republicans- controls all three branches of government.
Trump and Republicans in Congress blamed intransigence on the Democratic side for the shutdown. Democrats blasted Republicans for not being able to compromise.
The blame game of course is as old as the history of government shutdown itself. The partisan bickering is just a distraction from the systemic failure at the heart of the shutdown: The consistent failure of Congress to pass a budget on time.
As long as that problem persists, the cloud of a shutdown will always hang low in Washington’s sky.
What is a shutdown and why does it happen?
Government shutdown is fast becoming a common and costly staple of the American politics. There have been 18 shutdowns over the past four decades.
If prolonged, like the shutdown of 2013, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are sent home without pay and a wide range of government programs are put on hold, creating hardship and frustration for millions.
Most employees in the departments of housing, environment, education and commerce are forced to stay home. Workers at national parks or museums, as well as those who process visas and passports and maintain government websites do not go to work either.
Military and CIA operations continue, but the nation’s uniformed personnel do not get paid until after a shutdown ends. (The US military is a huge government-run organization, and as a result, millions of service members and their families will take a direct hit.)
Shutdowns have become so frequent as a byproduct of the modern budget process, which was put in place by the Budget Act of 1974. That law was passed because of a perception within Congress that the White House had too much sway over the development of the federal budget. It effectively shifted the balance of power in federal budgeting and created the current process.
The fiscal year begins on October 1 and congressmen should decide how to appropriate the funds after receiving the president’s proposal. Both chambers of Congress are supposed to pass 12 appropriations bills to fund government agencies and channel spending. As Congress often fails to pass these appropriations, temporary spending bills — known as stopgaps — have frequently been used over the past years. (In some cases, the government runs on stopgaps for the entire fiscal year.)
If partisan skirmishing prevails and Congress fails to strike even a short-term spending deal, the government shuts down until a budget – or a stopgap for that matter—is passed.
Some payments, like Social Security checks and Medicare, are mandatory. But subcommittees in Congress should agree on discretionary funds as well. And that’s where things get tricky. Everyone wants a larger piece of the federal pie for their home districts. And depending on what party they belong to, congressmen fight to get funds for programs that appeal most to their base.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s through those appropriations that some segments of the federal government keep operating during a shutdown.
Does a shutdown save money or cost money?
At the first glance, it might appear that a shutdown would amount to some quick savings, as workers are sent home and the government stops writing checks. But it is not that black and white.
A shutdown comes with a huge price tag possibly hundreds of millions of dollars per day. How? Furloughed workers almost always get paid retroactively for the time they stay home. That means taxpayers are effectively laying out money without getting any work in return. (During the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013, the administration of President Barack Obama had to spend some $2 billion in retroactive pay.)
In addition, museums and national parks do not collect fees, and revenues from other sources in the tourism sector are frozen.
All that money taken out of the economy has a ripple effect that shoots the ultimate price tag much higher. This time is no exception, when the political dust settles; it’s the American taxpayer who has to foot the bill.