The Upside of the Shutdown

Optimist that I am, let’s look at the upside of the government shutdown. Sure, eight hundred thousand government workers (not all Democrats) are without a paycheck, and there are the additional thousands who are lunch counter operators and dry cleaners who will never be compensated for their lost revenue. But the important point is that the border wall issue is one without content. Republicans fudge the difference between a border wall and border security because only political people think the wall is needed and Trump thinks so only because he became entranced with the term during the campaign. Trump is also the hands down worst deal maker of all time. He could have gotten twenty five billion for his wall last year in exchange for a bill guaranteeing the Dreamers a path to citizenship. He agreed to the deal when it was presented to him by the leading Democrats and Republicans but reneged on it after Stephen Miller got his ear and suggested the deal also include changes in general immigration laws so as to bar what they call chain immigration, which means uniting families, such as, for example, Melania’s family, brought over under those terms to the United States, as well as getting rid of a lottery for some immigrants. Miller also wants to cut the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States. So we are left with Trump now shutting down the government to get a fraction of what he could have gotten if he had really thought the border wall were a policy issue, which he now claims, rather than a campaign slogan.

Another sign that Trump is the worst deal maker ever is that he has alienated rather than charmed his interlocutors. Nancy and Chuck, by this time, so dislike the President, they have been burnt so often, that they are not about to toss him a toy so as to ease his temper tantrum even if it would cost only a few billion dollars. So Nancy declares that the wall is now a moral issue, deliberately making negotiation all but impossible. It is also good politics because her own base and the country at large don’t want her to give in.

Actually, I don’t get the whole theory of a government shutdown, where only essential services are still open. Perhaps my lawyer readers can help me out. I get the obvious distinction that an aircraft carrier is essential to preserving our liberty and so can’t be shut down, while keeping the national parks open is a luxury service provided to citizens. But, on the other hand, the aircraft carrier or some of them can go into port for a while and the national parks are a necessity for the long term well being of the American people. Keeping them unsullied, which means providing constant maintenance, is essential to preserving our posterity and a resource for further generations. One can argue that everything the government legislates becomes, by definition, a necessity. If we didn’t think FDA regulations to keep the food supply pure were not necessary, then the agency wouldn’t have been created in 1905. But the agency is cutting down on what inspections it does. Who decides what food inspections are essential and which ones aren’t? By what authority do officials make decisions if they are not being paid to work? Are not they, in effect, suspended?

I also don’t understand the fact that hundreds of thousands of federal workers are not being paid but are being forced to report to work anyway. The workplaces they are reporting to are still functioning. Does that mean that the heating or air conditioning at those places are paid for already with a fund of money that hasn’t run out yet? So the whole shutdown is an accounting matter in that some kitties have not been drawn down yet even if the bills add up and so the agencies function as if they will receive money? And might it not cost even more money to open and close buildings than to keep them running?

The assumption here is that the government will reopen and so it makes sense to conserve money by just keeping places open. But if that is the case, then what does a shutdown mean? It doesn’t mean a real shutdown but only the metaphor of a shutdown, because a real shutdown would be catastrophic, even if, to carry out the metaphor, it is necessary for some employees to suffer. But it is an important point, a constitutional matter, that nothing in the government can operate without congressional financial funding. So it would be best to pass legislation which covers what a shutdown does and doesn’t mean or maybe pass legislation where there is a fall back clause whereby Congress authorizes the government to continue operating subject to some future provision of funds. The whole matter of a shutdown is confusing.

But to return to the main issue. Think of all the much worse things Trump could be doing if he were not preoccupied with the wall. He could be deporting the dreamers or the eleven million undocumented aliens presently in the country. That is three percent of the population, which is a lot of people to deport even if it is a relatively small amount of the population living here, given how attractive this country is as a place to live and the fact that no border, just like no biological cell wall, is impervious to seepage in one direction or another. As it is, Trump does separate parents from children, which is bad enough. Moreover, no less a stalwart figure of the zany right than John Bolton is the one now in charge of walking back some of Trump’s more stupid pronouncements, in this case that we would within a month be leaving Syria. Everybody has to be afraid that not every leak in the dyke will find a finger to block it, especially now that Mattis and Kelly are gone. So we have to hope that Trump will be preoccupied with his wall for another month or so until the Mueller Report comes out and he becomes preoccupied with that. No one thinks that he will be as disciplined as Nixon and Clinton were during their impeachment investigation and so try to make it appear that the business of government was going on unimpaired. Trump will leave the government to be operated, should it be open by then, by the few professionals who remain with him.

And that is the second benefit of the government shutdown. Trump can’t even keep the government open, which you would think was a primary goal for his time in office, and he has no plan for how to get it to reopen. He is just standing pat with the cards he holds, and they don’t add up to much. Now even Republicans care about what would happen if there were a genuine national emergency which required a President to use his judgment to sort out what his advisors were telling him about how to handle a crisis, whether that was an epidemic in Africa, or an atomic explosion somewhere, or a major outbreak of violence in the United States. Incompetence has not previously been considered a basis for impeachment, though I am not sure why not if enough members of the President’s own party can be brought along to support it, but it certainly would act as a background factor that might influence Senate Republicans who were faced with deciding whether being on the take from the Russians were enough to make him an inappropriate occupant of the White House. In that case, justice would be done, Trump removed in time for Republicans to nominate someone who appears to be Presidential, and Hillary would be vindicated.

Meanwhile, the Democratic race for President is heating up and that will take up a lot of time on cable news, which never gets enough fuel to feed it, having bothered to cover live a preliminary hearing involving Kevin Spacey in a Nantucket courtroom for a sex charge. They will love finding holes in the Democratic contenders, though they will be disappointed that the Democrats don’t shiv one another the way Trump did his rivals during the Republican primary season in 2016. That was all very entertaining, Trump doing his imitation of Don Rickles, though Rickles was never that crude, because the people he roasted could laugh with him, as Trump did not, when Obama, what with his deadpan and slow delivery, getting his audience to savor what was coming, let Trump have it at a White House Correspondents Press. Trump looked glum and angry and, boy, did he get his revenge, however bitter the aftertaste is now for all of us. No, the Democratic candidates will all insist that they are serious people, that now a qualification for office, each of them rich in experience and in sound judgment.

So the campaign along with Mueller will take up some of the oxygen in the room and that is what the conflagration that is Donald Trump needs to keep his balloon in the air. The latest news is that Michael Cohen will tell all before Elijah Cummings’ House Oversight Committee sometime in February, which is when the Mueller Report hits and other House investigations are underway. Maybe, by that time, nobody will care if the government is still shut down or, more likely, the shutdown will be ended overnight because it is no longer a central focus of public attention, and so it will have done its job of holding center stage while the major acts were getting limbered up.