hat does President Donald Trump want, and how does he plan to get it? Those two questions are at the heart of the partial shutdown which began at midnight on December 22nd, and affects roughly a quarter of the federal government. The first question has a simple answer: Mr Trump wants $5bn to fund his border wall. During his campaign he promised that Mexico would pay for it, but that has long been abandoned, and now Mr Trump wants American taxpayers to foot the bill. The second question is trickier.
Before Mr Trump became president, both Republicans and Democrats agreed that shutting the government down reflected poorly on the party in power. Since power in Washington is often split between the two parties, shutdowns would therefore be followed by a ritual in which each party attempted to blame the other for what had happened. In 1995 and 1996, when Republicans held the House of Representatives and a Democrat sat in the White House, the blame for twin shutdowns went to Republicans. The lesson, in the form of an electoral defeat for Republicans in 1996, was powerful enough that neither party tried the manoeuvre again until 2013.
In that year the setup was the same: the House was controlled by Republicans and the White House by a Democrat. The government shut down once again. This time, though, Republicans paid no electoral price for degrading American governance. In fact the following year the party inflicted a heavy defeat on the Democrats. Enough Republican congressmen internalised the lesson that there was essentially no cost, and perhaps even an upside, to shutting down the government temporarily.
Then add to the mix a Republican president who lacks many of the received beliefs held by his predecessors about the responsibilities of a government to its employees and to its citizens, including the sense that as head of state he might actually be responsible for what the federal government does. (At a televised meeting in the Oval Office on December 11th with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, Mr Trump said, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security…I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down.”) The result is insouciance about something that was once considered a last resort. In 2018 alone Republicans, who control both the legislative and executive branch, have conspired to shut the government down three times.
Of the three, this shutdown looks to be the most serious. In economic terms the initial impact will be minor. The shutdown falls over a weekend followed by two federal holidays on December 24th and 25th. Essential services such as mail collection and border security will not be affected. After that around 800,000 federal workers risk being furloughed or ordered to work without pay (they will recoup their wages when government reopens). That is part of the problem: if a shutdown heralded economic catastrophe, there would be a clear incentive for the president to end it.
But unlike the other shutdowns of 2018, there is no obvious way out this time. The Republican-controlled House has already passed a measure that included $5bn for border security. That bill cannot get the 60 votes needed in the Senate to override a filibuster. Republicans hold just 51 seats, so even if every one of them supported it, the bill would still need nine Democratic votes—and Democratic leadership has made clear that will not happen. Instead, the Senate passed a continuing resolution to keep government funding at its current levels until early February. Mr Trump initially voiced support for such a measure; but after it passed he reversed course, and said he would not sign a bill unless it included funding for his wall.
Then Mr Trump tried pressuring the Democrats via Twitter: “If the Dems vote no,” he wrote, “there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time. People don’t want Open Borders and Crime!” Later came an even blunter message: “The Democrats now own the shutdown!” Ryan Costello, an outgoing Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, called the notion that Democrats would feel pressure to end the shutdown “toddler logic”.
Their leverage is set to rise, sharply and soon: on January 3rd, they will control the House. They will have two fewer Senate seats, but Republicans will still need to pick off seven to pass legislation. House Democrats could pass the Senate’s continuing resolution, effectively daring Mr Trump not to sign it. (Later Mr Costello made the source of his displeasure clear; he was not blaming “the party or House leadership. It’s POTUS.”)
Mr Trump has urged Mitch McConnell to “use the Nuclear Option”, meaning abolish the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to break, and pass the House border-wall funding with a simple majority. But Mr McConnell is an institutionalist as well as a presidential ally; he rebuffed Mr Trump’s demand. The Senate was intended to be a slower, more deliberative body than the House, and getting rid of the filibuster would reduce Republican leverage should Democrats reclaim the chamber. That option appears off the table, at least for now.
For his part, Mr Trump may decide it is worth waiting until the Democratic majority takes up the reins in the House. At that point the president’s line that the whole thing is the fault of Democrats might have more purchase. The president has always preferred campaigning to governing. With a threadbare White House staff and ever-multiplying investigations into his conduct, he may be quite happy telling rallies and Fox News that the Democrats are keeping the government closed to prevent him from fulfilling a signature campaign promise. That would not be accurate. But in Washington the truth is not what actually happened, it is what you can get your supporters to believe.
That would leave America entering the new year on the back of the worst December in financial markets since the Depression, with expectations of an economic slowdown rising, a trade war bubbling, a president who (according to reports in Bloomberg) muses about firing the chair of the Federal Reserve, a White House devoid of reassuring figures like Jim Mattis or John Kelly, and a federal government that is partially shut down. If this is what unified government looks like in a time of relative peace and stability, consider what divided government would look like if this president had to face a real crisis, rather than one of his own making. Welcome to 2019.
Reposted from The Economist©