The federal government shutdown has become one of the more inane rituals in modern political life.
Currently, President Donald Trump is refusing to sign the annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government until Congress authorizes $5 billion to build a mythical wall—or, at the very least, a fence—along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Democrats do not want to fund the wall, nor do many Republicans; they believe Trump’s hardcore immigration prohibitions to be fundamentally unacceptable. They hope to isolate the border wall funding from the rest of the budget so they can negotiate the issue without having to shutter the government until they reach an agreement with Trump. Of course, Trump knows his signature is his greatest leverage against congressional opponents of his immigration plan. More importantly, Trump knows that no one—not congressional Republicans, and certainly not his political base—is going to punish him for shutting down the government for a long shot at advancing one of his most distinctly unpopular priorities. Trump relishes the shutdown as an opportunity to serenade his hardcore supporters in the earliest months of the next presidential election season. So Trump and Congress linger together at an impasse. The shutdown has lasted 14 days. It doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon.
Theoretically, the shutdown is a political crisis. It’s such an inherently drastic notion: the U.S. government suspending its operations. The shutdown is a supposedly world-ending recourse for partisan disagreements about public policy. The severity of the recourse, not to mention its frequency in recent years, is a grave measure of partisan dysfunction. The shutdowns withhold salary and federal benefits from low-wage taxpayers, who are all abstracted as pawns in some grand national brinkmanship that produces losers all around.
But shutdowns also don’t seem to matter as much as political headlines tend to suggest. In 40 years, federal government shutdowns have increased in frequency only to decline in apparent significance. In retrospect, they never seem to have mattered much at all. They don’t define elections, and the political leaders who lead shutdown efforts rarely find cause for regret. The shutdowns leave only a faint and fleeting impression on the national mood. For voters, federal government shutdowns are a tedious fact of partisan conflict at the bureaucratic level. Congress is dysfunctional and unpopular; federal budget negotiations can seem tedious and abstruse; these things are as incomprehensible as they are inevitable. For whatever it’s worth, Trump has simplified and dramatized the matter: The shutdown is about the wall, and the wall is a campaign promise so distinct and provocative that this particular shutdown, if no other shutdown before it, should amount to a referendum on Trump and his political agenda. But the shutdown seems no more or less drastic than any other standoff between Trump and the Democrats, and the Trump administration seems no more or less in crisis than the White House does on any given day. Technically, voters blame Trump and the Republicans for the shutdown. Politically, it’s become unclear what, if anything, “blaming” politicians for these shutdowns even means.
Republicans have mastered the art of the shutdown so thoroughly, and proudly, that it’s become difficult for them in recent years to share the blame with Democrats. In fairness, Republicans didn’t popularize the shutdown. In the 1970s—the decade when federal government shutdowns emerged as a consequence for federal budget shortfalls—budget negotiations repeatedly pitted Senate Democrats, House Democrats, and the Carter administration against one another in fights over defense spending and federal funds for abortion. Republicans did, however, mastermind the shutdown’s development as a manner of partisan warfare. In the 1990s, House speaker Newt Gingrich and his insurgent Republican majority antagonized Bill Clinton by refusing to authorize the president’s spending priorities. So the government closed. Like Trump, Gingrich was proud to shutter the federal government, if only to humor Reagan’s famous characterization of government, in all its arrogant taxation and economic management, as “the problem” in the extreme.
Given the impulses toward austerity that have so frequently defined GOP shutdown efforts, it is strange to see a Republican president fighting so vehemently for $5 billion to build a ridiculous wall in addition to the current walls that already exist and also cost money. Let it never be said that conservatives stand categorically opposed to wasteful spending and massive public works projects; and let it never again be said that shutdowns are a political disaster. Among hacks and other political obsessives, they’re alarmist cause for happy hour. For everyone else, they’re wack as hell.