The common narrative surrounding the government shutdown is that it’s a political duel between President Donald Trump and Senator Chuck Schumer over funding for a wall. The majority of media analysis has focused on whether the Republicans or Democrats will come out on top. Regardless of how the shutdown is resolved, however, neither party will pay a particularly steep political price because it will be a distant memory by 2020. Instead, as has become almost routine in Washington these days, the losers are going to be the American people.
About 25 percent of the government shut down on December 22, with the remainder of agencies funded by previous bills through the next fiscal year. But that 25 percent is important. It includes a number of critical services that impacts much of the nation, such as national parks, important State Department services, and food inspections conducted by the Food and Drug Administration.
Trump says emphatically that border security via a wall is important enough to force a shutdown, while Schumer says he offered a compromise that included “funding for strong, sensible, and effective border security—not the president’s ineffective and expensive wall.” But this has almost nothing to do with genuine security for the American border.
What it has to do with is harming the other side politically and winning a broader political battle as a new Congress is sworn in this week. The border wall issue is simply a lightning rod for each side to use as a weapon against the other.
Both Trump and Schumer claim they recognize that we need to secure the border. What they really want is to score a political victory over the other—and neither appears concerned for who gets hurt in the process.
The result is that the inability of the two men to resolve their differences leaves hundreds of thousands out of work and consigns our borders to remain in a porous state; the number of illegal crossings is currently very high, and projections are that a staggering 600,000 additional people will cross illegally in 2019 without action from the Trump administration or Congress.
Trump made a physical wall one of the pillars of his 2016 campaign and is an issue of great importance to the core of his voter base. He’s taken heat from many of his most vocal conservative supporters this year for failure to follow through with building the wall. Now he’s chosen the vehicle of a government shutdown to press his case.
For Schumer, the shutdown is a golden opportunity to politically harm Trump and make him an even weaker opponent heading into the coming legislative session. Unfortunately for Trump, he was goaded by Schumer in the now-infamous televised argument in which he boasted that he would “own” a government shutdown.
From the moment Trump boasted he’d be proud to own the shutdown, Schumer had every political incentive to refuse compromise and spark a shutdown, knowing that Trump would receive the lion’s share of the blame. Unfortunately, Schumer’s glee and Trump’s hubris condemned large numbers of Americans to financial hardship.
In 2013 both authors worked for the federal government and lived through the 17 days of that year’s shutdown. We know first-hand the devastating consequences such actions impose on those who work for the government. I (Davis) was still on active duty in the Army at the time and observed how my organization’s mission almost came to a stand-still because half our workforce was government employees, all of whom were furloughed.
Meanwhile, I (Garcia) was working for an agency under Health and Human Services as a contractor in 2013 and was living paycheck-to-paycheck heading into the shutdown. The sudden loss of income forced me to ask family members for money to help paying bills, and like so many others, I endured considerable stress and anxiety, never knowing when my paychecks would resume. Even after the shutdown ended, it took time for the pay to restart, causing negative ripple effects for months.
We’ve heard many experts in the news minimizing the impact of the shutdown on the workforce, dismissing concerns by noting that federal employees have, historically, received back-pay. But these experts fail to recognize that only the federal employees get back pay: hundreds of thousands of contractors who serve the government just as faithfully as federal employees will never get reimbursed; they simply lose their money.
Moreover, people who fill positions deemed critical to our country—astonishingly, even personnel like the Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and TSA employees—will be working without pay for the duration of the shutdown. It is shameful and indefensible that we are willing to let the men and women upon whom we rely for our security to work without pay.
If the president and Congress believe their negotiating positions are so important that the government should shut down, they should at least have the moral courage to absorb the same level of sacrifice they’re imposing on others and forego their pay until the matter is resolved. Instead, they’ll remain content to throw verbal barbs at one another, trying to pin the blame on their opponent while hundreds of thousands of regular Americans pay the price.
The tragic fact is, the shutdown will end at some point. All this posturing won’t ultimately change anything. The most likely outcome is that some face-saving compromise will eventually be found whereby Trump gets to claim he’s getting funding for his wall, and Schumer will claim he held the president in check by not letting him get everything he wanted.
In the end, though, there still won’t be a real border wall, security will continue to be inadequate, and the immigration crisis will persist.
And all the while, the American people will continue to be used—as is now commonplace—as pawns by our political elite in pursuit of the games they play with each other. All our top leaders profess to care about the “regular man,” yet as evidenced by their collective behavior, the needs of the common American are rarely considered and even less frequently met.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army. Frances L. Garcia works for the Federal Government. The views stated in this article are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the views of the U.S. government or any private company or organization.