Why They Shut Down the Government

Nikolay Pakhomov on how a crisis was created a full two years before elections

If you agree with the majority of experts, then over the past few years, the American political process has become one giant political campaign after another. As soon as one election ends, politicians begin the battle for supremacy in the next. It would appear that the campaigns for the 2020 presidential election have already begun against the backdrop of the longest failure in American history to draft a budget, causing the shutdown of government agencies.

Winter in Iowa this year is not a cold one, so local voters gathering to see Elizabeth Warren will not have to deal with snow or cold weather. Warren is the first person to officially begin her 2020 presidential campaign. Despite the fact that the election is nearly two years away, Warren’s candidacy is stirring interest. The former Harvard professor is one of at least dozens of Democrats planning to challenge Donald Trump. It can be argued that the president has also begun his election campaign. His fundamental demand to finance the wall on the border with Mexico, a promise he made to voters, was strongly rejected by Democrats. As a result, financing for a large portion of the government could not be agreed upon.

The American term for such a failure in the budget process, “shutdown,” has already entered into use in other languages. It means that representatives, senators and the president were unable to agree upon budget expense items, resulting in governmental bodies ceasing operations, agencies closing, and government workers returning home to wait until politicians can come to an agreement. Of course, there are nuances to this “closing” of the government.

Many State Employees Are Required To Work for Free

To be more exact, all government workers will be paid retroactively once agreement is reached on a budget. However, while some must wait at home for this to happen, military personnel, law enforcement officers and a wide range of other officials must report to work.

This time, the House of Representatives, in which Republicans comprised the majority until January, was able to agree with the Senate and the president on, by various estimates, 70-75 percent of federal spending. However, the border wall Trump promised to build during the 2016 campaign is expected to be included in the remaining 25-30 percent. Not all Republicans have supported construction of the wall (especially during last year’s midterm election cycle). Moreover, Republicans do not have the 60 votes in the Senate necessary to override Democratic opposition. The latter has flatly refused to finance the wall.

Now Democrats hold the majority in the House of Representatives, and they resolutely reject any plans for construction of the wall. To better understand this categorical refusal, one must take into account that the wall was the president’s campaign promise. There is a story that Trump’s team at that time created this talking point about the wall in order to mobilize the billionaire and maintain his concentration.

According to this story, advisers recommended the image of a concrete wall as a simple accessible symbol of the fight against illegal immigration to the future president, who loves to boast of his construction prowess.

The president and his supporters love the image. It can be used for the president’s next campaign; “Making America Great Again” is a long process. They can even busy themselves with this project his entire second term. A finished wall would be a concrete example of a promise delivered. The Democrats understand this wonderfully, which explains their implacability.

Trump is also demonstrating perseverance. Only minor deviations from the position of “no budget until we get $5.7 billion for the wall” are possible. The campaign message of “Mexico paying for the wall” has been replaced with the explanation that the new trade deal with Mexico will be so beneficial to the U.S. that money for the wall will be easy to find. (A trade agreement, of course, has not been ratified by Congress, and with Democrats in the majority in the House, there is no guarantee that one will be. But that is for another discussion.) Or the concrete wall might become a steel barrier. Either way, the president is steadfast; he will not sign a budget that does not contain money for the construction of a wall.

While some journalists, in chorus with Democrats and government workers’ union leaders, paint pictures for the population of various disasters because of the shutdown, others report on the president complaining to those in his inner circle about how Republicans are distancing themselves from his principled stance. Even if that is true, for now, there is no reason to believe that Trump will change his position. There have been other shutdowns in America’s history, but politicians, presidents, senators and representatives were able to compromise in order to increase their chances of re-election or a successful life after their political careers.

I venture to guess that for Trump, such ideas are, to put it gently, of secondary importance. His personal finances are already secured, as is his reputation. But the key to his re-election might be a political victory in this current standoff with Democrats.

I remind you that Trump still has the support of a significant (up to 40 percent) and active portion of the electorate. Even if building the wall will not win over many new voters for Trump, mobilizing his current base could be enough to win him re-election. The lack of unity in the Democratic camp also supports this theory. Warren has begun her campaign, but dozens of other Democrats have let it be known that they are not ruling out running in the primaries. Observers agree on estimates of possibly more than 30 candidates, including senators, representatives, governors, mayors and, of course, former Vice President Joe Biden. Some even believe the number could reach 50. With such an abundance of candidates in the primaries, it is possible that the winner will lose some Democratic voters who support other candidates. For now, Trump’s support is stable at 35-40 percent.

Obviously, this situation will cause more than just fragmentation of resources for the Democrats, including financing. There are enough ideological debates as it is. For example, Warren adheres to openly left-leaning positions, but there are likely candidates who offer even more radical agendas: free health care and universities, a sharp increase in taxes on the rich and immediate cessation of military operations abroad. And then there are plenty of centrists, including those close to the Clintons. Ideological debates became even more apparent after the new Congress began its work: the radical wing of the Democrats is demanding impeachment. The party establishment placates these urges, which is wise since Senate Republicans make impeachment nearly impossible. Of course, the House of Representatives can start the process, though is it not better for them to busy themselves with creating laws in the interest of the majority of the electorate?

Nor do demographic considerations promote unity among the Democrats. There is already pushback against allowing an older white male to take on Trump as the Democratic presidential candidate. Confused journalists are asking some potential candidates: How do you plan to defeat Trump since you are a white man?

Despite all their differences, every Democrat understands that obviously, the main challenge now is to prevent Trump from building the wall. But Trump is also determined. He has already said that the shutdown could continue for months or years. (The latter is not likely from a practical point of view: if the budget is not renewed, money for financing government agencies will run out. Such a dissolution of the American government, and for such an extended period of time, is difficult to imagine today.) Furthermore, the president is also threatening action that will cause an escalation of the situation. In particular, he is considering declaring a state of emergency and calling in the U.S. Army to build the wall. Democrats promise all-out resistance to such a decision. With such a development of events, one can confidently predict only that the political crisis will reach an unprecedented scale. Its size will be defined exclusively by the turbulent dynamics between the president and the opposition. It can also be said with certainty that the political climate in the U.S. until the 2020 election is going to be nasty.

The author is a political scientist and the president of The New York Consulting Bureau.

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