Why you should care
Because your favorite national parks will probably remain closed for a while.
To Donald Trump’s ample list of presidential firsts, you’ll soon be able to add “longest-ever government shutdown.” At the end of this week, the Border Wall Breakdown will surpass the 21-day Bill Clinton–Newt Gingrich staredown that bridged 1995 and 1996.
Last week ended with Trump telling congressional leaders that the shutdown could go on for months, even a year. “We won’t be opening until it’s solved,” he told reporters in the Rose Garden on Friday. Still, he repeatedly emphasized that negotiators will be working “over the weekend” to hammer out a deal to end the shutdown of about one-quarter of the government.
But what does a deal in this case even look like? This dispute has centered on one line item of totemic importance to both sides: $5.6 billion toward a wall at the U.S.–Mexico border.
One could imagine a split-the-baby $2.8 billion allocation for border security — but that would require both sides to define the money in contradictory terms.
Former congressman Carlos Curbelo, the moderate Florida Republican who lost his race last fall, says the way out is the same solution that’s been talked about for more than a year — wall funding combined with amnesty for so-called Dreamers who came to the U.S. as children. President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protected many from deportation. Trump reversed that order, but his reversal has been held up in court. Curbelo was part of the group that tried fruitlessly to negotiate a compromise on immigration. And he’s not terribly confident it will get done now, because both sides appear to want the political issue more than they want the policy.
“For a long time, this wall issue has been a rallying cry that gets the Republican base excited and angry,” Curbelo says. “For a long time, DACA has been a political instrument to paint Republicans as anti-immigrant and get their base riled up. Are both parties willing to give that up?”
We spoke by phone as the White House meeting was underway, and before Trump emerged to outright dismiss a wall-for-DACA deal. He said the court case would need to be resolved, likely by the Supreme Court, before the two sides could talk about a permanent solution for DACA recipients.
Are there any other win-win options? One could imagine a split-the-baby $2.8 billion allocation for border security — but that would require both sides to define the money in contradictory terms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly said “no” to the wall. Trump has talked about it incessantly since he launched his campaign, and on Friday even floated declaring a “national emergency” to build a wall using funds not earmarked for that purpose.
The two sides are dug in, even though Democrats have ponied up far more money for border fencing in the past, and many Republicans admit a structure of the kind Trump talks about doesn’t make much sense for many remote areas of the border. (Trump also laughably claims the “make Mexico pay for it” part of his wall pledge is fulfilled by a new trade deal with our southern neighbor.)
Polls show that a majority of Americans oppose a border wall, but it’s incredibly important to Trump’s political base. As Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News: If Trump caves, “that’s probably the end of his presidency.” Pelosi, too, must contend with a political base that sees the wall as a symbol of racism, not to mention a political windfall for Trump they’re disinclined to provide.
As the dispute drags on, the real-world effects start to pile up like so much trash in overflowing national park bins. Native Americans living on reservations could lose access to health care. Alaska fishermen are losing out on millions because they can’t fish without federal permits. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors are missing their paychecks. It’s not like we’re saving money either: Shutdowns usually cost the government money because of all of the disruption. Standard & Poor’s estimated that the 16-day shutdown in 2013 caused a $24 billion hit to the economy, while the Obama administration said it lost $2 billion in productivity from federal workers.
But an extended shutdown could have effects we’ve never seen before on federal workers’ financial well-being — impacting everything from housing to health care. If this continues into February, 38 million people would see food stamp benefits slashed, and $140 billion in tax refunds could be delayed.
Despite these potentially devastating effects, at present the pressure to end the impasse mostly comes from the press: Asked by a reporter on Friday, Trump said he figured landlords would give struggling federal employees a break if they can’t make rent. For most Americans, the shutdown is invisible in their daily lives. Curbelo served through a brief shutdown last year, and says when hearing from constituents in these moments, the “greatest complaint was government dysfunction and incompetence.” Those complaints continue rolling in, shutdown or no.
Read more: Here’s a way to make Mexico pay for the wall — give back some territory.