Shutdown Theater, Again

President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer talk in the Oval Office, December 11, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The promise of this kind of spectacle is about one half of why Donald Trump was elected.

New York City’s annual Shakespeare in the Park is the worst kind of theater. Washington’s annual government-shutdown drama is the second-worst kind.

Oddly enough, Chuck Schumer figures in both.

I wrote off the alfresco performances in Central Park after the Public Theater decided that what Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale really needed was a political speech by Senator Schumer, who wandered onto the stage at one point — after Bill de Blasio’s campaign-rally speech but before the Muppets, if I recall that slightly surreal evening correctly — to make a few of his habitually banal political observations before shouting “Vote Democratic!” and wandering off.

Geoffrey Rush he is not.

Improvisation is not the senator’s forte. When President Donald Trump surprised Senator Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi — the other half of the Democrats’ noisome slapstick-comedy duo — by broadcasting their acrimonious Oval Office meeting, the anguine gentleman from New York was caught off-guard.

Senator Schumer and Representative Pelosi invoked the word “shutdown” as though it were a magical incantation. President Trump said that he’d be “proud” to shut down the government if he doesn’t get funding for a border wall. As Trump bellowed and berated the Democrats, “Schumer sat staring forward and not meeting the president’s eyes,” as CNBC put it. The promise of that kind of spectacle is about one half of why Donald Trump was elected.

Illegal immigration is the other half.

Those of us who take a more miserly view of the enumerated powers of the federal government believe that it does not have very many legitimate jobs to do. Instead of doing a few things well, it does many, many, many things — badly. But if the federal apparatus serves any purpose at all, providing for national security — beginning with securing the borders — is it.

Washington should do its damned job. Which it will, once it has exhausted every other option. Republicans have the chance to take some of those options away.

Disorder is always undesirable in government. And this year’s installment of shutdown theater finds many different currents of chaos adjoined: an increasingly dysfunctional constitutional order in which the legislative branch has effectively abdicated and ceded much of its power to the executive; a border that in practice is defended by very little more than strong language; a broken congressional budgeting process in which the regular order of appropriations have been supplanted by a series of “continuing resolutions,” stopgap measures that have now been passed more than 100 times in this still-young century.

That last one is worth thinking on some. From the Congressional Research Service:

Between FY1977 and FY2016 (excluding the four fiscal years in which all appropriations were enacted on time), over half of the regular appropriations bills for a fiscal year were enacted on time in only one instance (FY1978). In all other fiscal years, fewer than six regular appropriations acts were enacted on or before October 1. In addition, in 14 out of the 40 years during this period, none of these regular appropriations bills were enacted prior to the start of the fiscal year. Nine of these fiscal years have occurred in the interval since FY2001.

The abandonment of what budget geeks refer to as “regular order” — the consideration, revision, and passage of a dozen or so separate appropriations bills moving through the ordinary congressional committee process — keeps Washington effectively in a state of constant fiscal emergency. That leads to a great deal of drama and much gnashing of teeth, but the stakes are almost trivial: Federal “shutdowns” are really nothing of the sort, with most of the essential functions of the government continuing uninterrupted. We don’t dock the aircraft carriers or put the nuclear arsenal in standby mode. The Obama administration made a great show of closing national parks, going so far as to surround the National Mall with barricades.

Republicans used to fear being blamed for these things, a part of the more general Republican tendency to fear being blamed for things. But they have discovered that the political price for these acts of theater is pretty low. They are slow learners, but they learn — or at least they can, where there is a question of self-preservation. Mainly, shutdowns inconvenience the federal workers who get furloughed, which upsets their household finances. One feels for them. What’s rarely said aloud but surely appreciated by Republicans is that practically all of them are Democrats, as are the great majority of non-military government employees. If you have to hurt somebody, very few Republican voters are going to weep for the bureaucracy.

Republicans ought to be the party of order. (Ought; they are not.) But border security is an issue worth taking a stand on, even at the cost of a little ceremonial disorder. The politics are broadly on the side of those who wish to see the borders more adequately secured, and the issue will put Democrats in the position of defending illegal immigration — legal immigrants would not be much inconvenienced by a wall.

The problem is that the Republicans have the right politics but the wrong policy. (Often, the opposite is the case.) Building a wall would bring some benefits and would present the Trump administration with an important symbolic victory, but it is at best an incomplete policy, and in some ways a bad one. For much of the U.S.-Mexico border, a wall is neither practical nor desirable, something that would be clear to the denizens of Washington if they spent much time on the parts of the border that are not within micturition distance of a Starbucks in San Diego.

Part of the problem with a wall is that it does things that we don’t want to do, such as necessitating the appropriation of private property along the border, interrupting access to water, etc. Those problems are mostly solvable. The bigger problem with a wall is that it does not do what we want it to do: cut off the flow of illegal immigrants. Most new illegal immigrants do not enter the United States by wading across the Rio Grande. They come legally on visas and fail to leave when required. You can build the wall ten feet higher or twenty feet higher, but unless you are going to build it high enough to cut off international air traffic, it will not solve the problem.

If the Republicans are going to shut down the government over border security, they should do it on behalf of a better border-security agenda. The most important reform would be putting an electronic wall between would-be illegal workers and their employers through a robust, mandatory program of employment-eligibility verification. And then there’s the mundane, tedious work of everyday law enforcement: Raiding a few construction sites will net a few illegal drywall installers, but if you really want to change behavior, then that begins with frog-marching the employers off to the federal pokey. The federal government does not have a very good record on that, and winning convictions in such cases is difficult. But it is the employers who provide the main lure for illegal immigration in the first place. And, unlike the millions of illegal immigrants, we know where they live.

Republicans should be the responsible party on immigration. The Democrats are too much in thrall to identity politics to do be that. And Republicans should not fear a shutdown.

What they should fear is getting too little in exchange.


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