The consensus is that Donald Trump lost. That somehow reinforces the impression that US government shutdowns are just a game, the latest one in particular. Kids can’t visit zoos and countless federal workers are left in financial uncertainty, all because a few politicians cannot agree on how to stop illegal immigrant crossings.
Well, the “how” there should be capitalised. They agree that illegal immigrants from Central America are a bad thing, but cannot find a compromise for their different ideas on how to keep them at bay. Since both camps’ ideas require state money, a congressional stand-off over the budget ensued and the shutdown happened. President Trump blinked first, and the suspended services got money to start up again.
Are shutdowns a good, democratic way to solve conflict? It’s hard to tell. You don’t need them in, say, Thailand, where everyone including the opposition wants state budgets to pass through Parliament in a hurry so projects big and small can be fulfilled. In the United States, though, they are portrayed as a “civilised” way to settle disagreements. You might wonder, however, whether another path is available, one that does not impact the pandas and their admirers, not to mention a huge number of federal employees.
Is there a way to limit the disagreement to its source? Trump wants a border wall while his opponents want other measures to guard against illegal immigration, so can’t they just fight among themselves over amounts of money? In other words, if Mum and Dad can’t agree on what car to buy or whether an expensive anti-burglary alarm is better than iron bars, is giving the kid less money for lunch a fair solution?
It boils down to that – iron bars versus an alarm. It’s not that Trump is saying illegal immigrants are bad and the Democrats are disputing him. (In which case the whole thing would be another matter entirely, as Trump was elected as president by the American people on his tough stance against illegal immigration.) They don’t agree on how to spend taxpayers’ money, and people unrelated to the conflict have been punished as part of that disagreement.
To be fair, essential services did not grind to a halt. Medicare, mail delivery, tax collection (of course), and the military continued to function. The shutdown affected “non-essential” federal workers like park and zoo workers and Nasa personnel who were not flying in space.
But if you are not a Mexican planning to enter the United States illegally, you might laugh. In an attempt to shut out illegal immigrants, the United States has shut down various sectors of its own country. It’s an “America First” irony.
We can also feel sorry for both Republican and Democrat voters affected by the shutdown. Certainly, the pro-Trump voters now working as rangers did not pick him so he could suspend their pay. Likewise, pro-Democrat federal workers did not vote for the opposition to hold back their paycheques over some disagreement they hardly care about.
Headlines have been about Trump caving in and Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi being a tough woman who should challenge for presidency. The real issue, however, is that the compromise leading to the end of the shutdown is fragile and that both camps now have had added motive to spite their opponent at the expense of innocent citizens.
Although the American government is technically open again, congressional leaders, Trump and his team have about three weeks to hammer out a long-term solution. Meanwhile federal officials are battling urgently to bring their agencies back to fully operational levels. Roughly a quarter of the federal government was hit by the shutdown. Some agencies limped along with a skeleton staff for over a month, while other offices were shuttered entirely.
Most analysts declared Trump has been defeated, with his presidential clout in tatters. This is somewhat confusing, though. Only in politics can you call giving people their jobs back a loss.
This is by no means a show of sympathy for Trump. He and his political opponents were responsible for the shutdown, the longest one in US history and with troubling signs that more bad news is in the pipeline.
The president still wants his wall. His opponents are balking at it and will not budge. Government shutdowns remain a constitutional channel. The recipe has not changed at all.
When elephants clash, grass is flattened, goes the old Thai saying. It’s meant to remind everyone that power, especially when wielded irresponsibly, can badly damage the lives of the innocent. And it does not matter that the elephants are supposed to help the grass grow, not crush it and block its supply of sunlight and water.