The US has been in the midst of a partial government shutdown, its longest till date, over a row between Republicans and the Democrats over funding for the construction of a wall on the Mexican border.
Trump on Thursday renewed a threat to declare a national emergency over the wall, which Democrats have called immoral and a waste of taxpayers’ money. On a visit to a border patrol station in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, he said that if Congress did not approve funding for the wall, he would “probably … I would almost say definitely” declare a national emergency to bypass lawmakers.
Meanwhile, the deadlock has already left several federal departments and agencies without funding, and roughly 800,000 workers without a paycheck this week.
Here’s what a shutdown means
Every year, the US Congress has to pass laws funding the federal government for the president to sign. Partials shutdowns have happened when the Congress is unable to agree on a budget before a deadline, or if the president refuses to sign it. This shutdown began on December 22 and closed 25% of the government.
Soon after the Democrats gained control of one chamber of the Congress, namely the House of Representatives, they refused to approve funding for the wall on the US-Mexico border.
US President Donald Trump subsequently refused to sign legislation to fund and reopen the government if it does not include $5.7bn for the wall.
Who will fund the wall?
In 2017, he had said the wall could cost $10 billion, even though several other sources including Reuters reported that the real cost could be as high as $21.6 billion.
Failing to secure funding from several sources including Mexico, Trump is now asking for $5.7 billion from the Congress, essentially asking other government agencies to siphon money for the wall from their respective treasuries. In other word, American taxpayers will now have to foot his “unnecessary” and “ineffective” bill, even though he had promised earlier that Mexico would pay for the wall.
Democrats have pushed back against this, saying it won’t happen without Congressional approval. For them, this is also a matter of who will dictate the policy priorities for the remainder of Trump’s presidency.
In the wake of the shutdown and Democrats’ unwavering opposition, the White House on Thursday reportedly considered diverting some of the $13.9 billion allocated last year by Congress for disaster relief in such areas as Puerto Rico, Texas and California to pay for the wall.
Democrats’ stance on the matter
Calling it a matter of policy priorities, Democrats are dead set against the wall, which also forms a key pledge in Trump’s re-election campaign. Trump himself admitted it would be embarrassing if he backed down from the project, which he has posited as the only way to avert a “growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.”
The debate began when Democratic leader and recently-elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi flatly denied to support Trump’s bid for a wall, which the president believes is crucial to avoid the threat to national security, referring to illegal immigrants and the recent migrant caravan. He has also pointed to illegal drug supplies, people trafficking and criminal acts by illegal immigrants in the US on several occasions to justify the wall, even though studies showed that most crimes on American soil were committed by natural citizens, not by immigrants.
Shortly after the shutdown call, VP Mike Pence said, “There will be no deal without a wall.”
Meanwhile, the deadlock is set to enter its third week and a record length. It has left several federal departments and agencies without funding, roughly 800,000 workers without a pay check this week, while Trump chooses to debate about the semantics. “I refuse to call it a shutdown,” he said, “I call it doing what you have to do for the benefit and for the safety of our country.”
If he goes ahead with declaring an emergency, it will come with its own baggage of charges against the president for overusing executive powers and huge legal challenges. Some analysts argue that such a move could provide political cover to reopen the government and for Trump to convince people he had done his best to build the wall.
Elected representatives are entitled to debate policy, but using the federal workforce and contractors as a bargaining chip is reprehensible. Of the 800,000 federal employees affected, about 350,000 are furloughed — a kind of temporary layoff — and the rest are working without pay. They include prison guards, airport security screening staff, and members of the FBI.
Routine food inspections have also halted because of the partial government shutdown. Listings of new companies are on hold, mortgage approvals have been delayed and the release of certain economic data has been suspended. If prolonged further, the shutdown could hurt economic growth enough for the real panic to set in.
Senate Democrats on Thursday called for a legislation to reopen shuttered parts of the federal government, saying that those agencies not related to the border wall should be reopened immediately while negotiations over the wall continue.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the move, saying that “political stunts are not going to get us anywhere.” He further clarified that he won’t take up any legislation related to the shutdown in the Senate that President Donald Trump won’t sign.
On Saturday, the shutdown becomes the longest in US history. With no room left for diplomatic negotiations, the US seems to be headed for a national emergency in the coming weeks. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a key Trump ally, said there was no other pathway forward.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.