The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Are Democrats Certain They’re Going to Emerge Unscathed from a Shutdown?

Government shutdowns happen when one side is convinced they can’t lose. They feel like almost all of the blame for the shutdown will end up assigned to the other political party, and that thus they can demand considerable concessions, because time is on their side.

The side that feels that way in these fights is usually the Democrats, and they have good reason to feel that way. Democrats “won” the government shutdown fights in the mid-1990s, and they would have won the one in 2013 if they hadn’t followed the reopening of the government with the launch of Healthcare.gov, the highly-touted, extraordinarily expensive online platform to buy health insurance… that didn’t work.

The reason Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer feels so confident is because he is convinced that the media will echo the narrative he prefers. That narrative is roughly, “caring, common-sense Democrats want to keep the government open, but the cruel, cold-hearted Republicans want to destroy the DACA program and deport all of these adorable moppets and inspiring high-school valedictorians.”

Schumer is so confident, Democrats filibustered a continuing resolution that would keep the government open and fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years. There were 50 votes in favor of that continuing resolution, without Senator McConnell voting. The 50 included Democratic senators Joe Manchin, W.Va.; Joe Donnelly, Ind.; Heidi Heitkamp, N.D.; and Claire McCaskill, Mo., plus newly elected Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama (all up for reelection in 2018 in Trump states). Four Republicans voted no: Senators Lindsey Graham, S.C.; Rand Paul, Ky.; Mike Lee, Utah; and Jeff Flake, Ariz.

The fact that red-state Democrats didn’t want to launch a shutdown over DACA probably ought to make other Democrats nervous. The public support for DACA is probably akin to the public support for innocuously-worded gun control proposals: a mile wide but an inch deep. On Friday, a poll from CNN indicated Americans didn’t want a government shutdown to preserve DACA: “Still, 56 percent overall say approving a budget agreement to avoid a shutdown is more important than continuing the DACA program, while just 34 percent choose DACA over a shutdown. Democrats break narrowly in favor of DACA — 49 percent say it’s more important vs. 42 percent who say avoiding a shutdown is the priority — while majorities of both Republicans (75 percent) and independents (57 percent) say avoiding a shutdown is more important.”

This morning, the Politico/Morning Consult poll showed similar numbers. When asked whether it was worth shutting down the government to ensure passage of a bill “that grants young people who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children, often with their parents, protection from deportation,” the sample split evenly, 42 percent to 42 percent.

The numbers on blame aren’t that much of an advantage for Democrats, either: “more voters would blame Republicans in Congress for the government shutdown, 41 percent, than would blame Democrats, 36 percent. Democratic and Republican voters, by wide margins, held the other side responsible. But more independents said they would blame Republicans, 34 percent, than Democrats, 27 percent.”

You don’t have to look that hard to find Democrats wondering if they’re making the right calculation. The people hit hardest by a government shutdown, federal workers, are a Democratic constituency, and it’s not clear how much economic anxiety they’re willing to endure for the DACA program. (See below.) Democrats are expecting a constituency that does vote for them (federal workers) to take a hit for a constituency that, at least under current law, cannot vote for them (DACA kids). If the shutdown stretches on, federal workers who live in Virginia and Maryland will notice soon that Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin had a chance to vote to send them back to work and didn’t.

David Leonhardt, writing in the New York Times: “The smart move now for Democrats is to accept a short-term funding bill that ends the shutdown and diffuses the tension.”

A Kind Word for Federal Workers

This morning, about 350,000 civilian Department of Defense workers are staying home. (Or, as I understand it, a few are heading into work for a few hours to ensure everything is set up to minimize disruption during the shutdown.) You may have heard about how Armed Forces Network, which brings U.S. television programming to our men and women in uniform based overseas, stopped operating once the shutdown began, but uniformed personnel were able to step in and set up the broadcast of yesterday’s football playoff games.

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, processing of claim appeals will cease, and processing of new claims is likely to be delayed.

At the Department of Homeland Security, E-Verify is shut down.

The Internal Revenue Service, customer service is shut down. Tax refunds may be delayed as a backlog builds up.

At the State Department, processing of U.S. passport applications is shut down.

At the National Institutes of Health, they cannot take in new patients.

The federal courts have enough funding to operate for the next three weeks.

The Smithsonian museums and National Zoo are open today, using leftover funds from the previous fiscal year, but it’s not yet clear beyond that.

During the last government shutdown in 2013, about 800,000 federal workers stayed home.

We all enjoy the joke, “wait, if they’re non-essential, why don’t we just fire them?” but the point is that they’re not essential for public safety; they are still essential for some non-public-safety role. As you can see from the above list, new claims at the VA, E-verify, tax refunds, passports, and NIH treatment for new patients may not be immediately essential to public safety or national security, but they’re still worth having.

If you’re thinking, “great, this is a good way to save taxpayer money,” it isn’t. The federal government usually pays the furloughed workers for the lost time. (After all, it’s not like the workers didn’t want to work or refused to do their duties; the government effectively locked them out.) The government eventually pays workers for the time spent at home, without getting the labor and services.

But if you think that is a sweet deal for federal workers, it really isn’t.

Picture, say, Joe, one of the 850 or so security guards at the Smithsonian museums. Joe knows he works today but doesn’t know if he goes to work Tuesday and beyond. He doesn’t know how long he won’t be working if the Smithsonian does close. Congress could work out a deal by the end of the day, or the shutdown could last weeks.

He knows he won’t get paid until the next pay period after the government reopens. He still needs to pay the rent, the grocery bill, pay for the gas for his car and so on, but he doesn’t know when the next paycheck will come in. He’s not quite laid off and he’s not quite working, either. He doesn’t want to change jobs and there’s probably not even much point in looking for a temp job somewhere; he’s probably expected back at work the day after the shutdown ends. He’s in employment Limbo.

Will Joe be alright? Probably, as long as the shutdown doesn’t stretch on for more than a week. But there’s a lot of economic anxiety in a lot of households that didn’t do anything wrong right now.

ADDENDA: How excited are we about an Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl? I’d like to see some drama, but the Brady-Belichick combo just feels like a machine right now. The Jaguars gave it everything they had. Well, maybe the commercials will be good.

Scott Mason and the good guys at TurnOnTheJets.com were kind enough to invite me back for another Jets-focused chat, this time about free agency. The big questions all focus around current Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins, where I end up on the more skeptical side of the divide. Is he a safer selection than the big-name quarterbacks in the draft like Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Baker Mayfield? Yes. Is he a better one in the long-term? That’s tougher to say. And will a team win if they make him one of the highest-paid players in the game? That’s the toughest call.

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