Monday, January 28, 2019

Our Shutdown Extortion

The US has just gone through the longest government shutdown in its history. We’ve had a number of government shutdowns in the past, but with a few exceptions, they only lasted a few days. This is because although there were some hotheads who started the shutdowns, more reasoned people saw the serious consequences of such a thing and soon decided to call the whole thing off.

In this case, the consequences were about 800,000 federal workers who were either being furloughed without pay or for those employees deemed essential, were required to work without pay until this whole thing was settled.

There have been many stories in the news about some of these employees who are living from paycheck to paycheck and going through the agony of wondering how they are going to be able to pay their mortgage/rent along with food, utilities, and other necessities of life. I have experienced this and can tell you that the mental along with the physical stress of all of this can be unbearable!

How did we get here? It goes back to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump whose main thrill in addressing his supporters was to feed them ‘red meat’ to get them fired up. As it turned out, the idea of building a wall on our southern border excited the crowd perhaps more than anything else until every campaign stop featured a refrain on the order of  "We’re going to build a wall - and who’s going to pay for it?  Mexico!!” Note that in the video, Trump emphasized that he was going to build an actual wall on the Southern border, not a fence nor any other substitute for a wall.

This became his signature issue that helped put him over the top on the way to an improbable election victory. But a wall was what he promised, and a wall is what his followers expect. Trump now had to come up with a way to build this unpopular wall along with letting Mexico know that they were going to pay for it. But of course they aren’t going to pay for it as emphatically conveyed to Trump by former Mexican President Vincente Fox in this hilarious and profanity laden rant.

But despite the Republicans having control of both houses of Congress for the first two years of his term, Trump could not get enough votes to build the wall. This last December, Trump gave in to reality and backed off of his $5 billion demand for a border wall.

At that point, the far right led by Ann Coulter, called Trump gutless if he can't build a wall.
“Gutless President in Wall-Less Country,” her column, which ran on Breitbart, was titled.
“This utterly unlikely and, at least for president, in many ways, a not particularly attractive presidential candidate beat the most qualified woman ever to run for the office, basically on one promise: the promise to build a wall and never backing down on that,” she said on the Daily Caller’s podcast.
She said Trump’s White House risked becoming a “joke presidency that scammed the American people” if he wasn’t able to get the wall built, and said she wouldn’t vote for him in 2020 if he didn’t.
“Why would you?” she said.
Fearing the loss of support of his political base, including Ann Coulter along with Rush Limbaugh and others, Trump suddenly changed his position and announced to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he would indeed proudly take the blame for a government shutdown if he didn’t get the $5 billion for his border wall. And so he followed through on his threat.

While Trump considers a government shutdown just another part of his arsenal, in fact a government shutdown is little more than extortion, in this case with the 800,000 government employees and their paychecks being held hostage.

The easiest thing to do would have been to cave in to Trump’s demands and reopen the government. After all, $5 billion is just a drop in a bucket compared to the total budget. But this would be a fatal error. If extortion is shown to be effective, what is to keep Trump or anybody else from threatening future shutdowns over all kinds of things?

So Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats were correct in standing firm and insisting that the government first be reopened before commencing negotiations,

Although Trump insisted he would hold out for months if needed, the eventual results of the shutdown proved that these shutdowns are inherently self-limiting. Yes, the loyal government workers who were forced to would obediently show up for work - for a while. But loyalty doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table. Making things even worse, Trump and the wealthy patricians that surround him started making incredibly tone deaf comments that completely dismissed the suffering these people were going through.

Soon, TSA airport workers and then air traffic controllers saw their absentee rates creep up steadily to where there was a fear of eventually hitting the breaking point.  Seeing this, the president who saw his popularity poll numbers steadily drop during this debacle, decided to give in and open the government without any funding for his wall - but only for 21 days to hopefully allow a compromise to be worked out.

For Trump, it was the worst of both worlds. To keep those on the far right happy, he agreed to the shutdown that many observers feel took a large political toll on him. And when he eventually had to give in and open the government without getting his wall funding, these same people on the far right roundly condemned him as a loser. So to appease these people, Trump is threatening another government shutdown if he doesn’t get his wall funding in the 21 day peace period in essence resorting to extortion again even if the first try didn’t work!

It’s fair to say that both parties in Congress have no taste for another shutdown. But as a backup plan, Trump announced that he would consider declaring a national emergency to get his wall funding without congressional approval. In essence, this would be getting what he wants without resorting to extortion. But even Republicans objected to this dangerous precedent fearing that a future Democratic president may resort to this. As a practical matter, many observers feel that this political stunt would be tied up in litigation for quite some time.

What will happen in the present negotiations during this 21 day period is anybody’s guess. Perhaps wiser heads will use this opportunity to craft some badly needed immigration reform. But those on the far right (yeah, them again) will cry Amnesty!! for even the slightest concession that would improve the lives of the immigrant population.

So while immigration reform may be out of reach at this time, another bit of reform is on the minds of those in Congress.  Although bills have been proposed and rejected in the past that would outlaw future government shutdowns, the bad taste in their mouths from this latest catastrophe of a shutdown has launched a renewed effort to try and keep this from ever happening again. Extortion is wrong, no matter which party is behind it!

Perhaps these recent quotes from Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander will give us hope:
“Shutting down the government should be as off limits in budget negotiations as chemical warfare is in real warfare,”
“We accepted the idea that shutting down the government is an acceptable bargaining chip in a budget negotiation and it should never, ever be, and we should resolve that that should never, ever happen.”