The longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended on Jan. 25 with President Donald Trump agreeing to fund the government through Feb. 15, pending on negotiations for funding for his border wall proposal. The shutdown, which lasted for a total of 35 days, closed one quarter of the federal government leading to 800,000 federal workers not being paid and the closure of several government departments.
This shutdown occurred because Congress and Trump were unable to reach an agreement on funding for the border wall, which was added as an amendment to a bill that to fund the last 25 percent of the government that was left unfunded after a September spending bill. Trump wanted $5 billion for his proposal, but the Democrats in Congress were unable to agree to that proposal, according to CNN. As a result of this, the government shut down on Dec. 22. Although the shutdown ended on Jan. 25, Trump said that if no agreement is reached by both him and Congress, then the government will shut down again and he will use his executive powers to declare a national emergency to build the wall.
What is a shutdown?
A government shutdown occurs when “Congress cannot resolve budget disagreements for the upcoming fiscal year and stops all but essential federal services,” according to BusinessDictionary.com. During a shutdown, federal departments and agencies are legally required to stop all non-essential discretionary spending until more funding is passed by Congress and signed by the president, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. During the shutdown, services that are deemed essential continue to work, along with other mandatory spending programs, but none of the federal employees are paid. This past shutdown, however, was a partial shutdown, which means that 75 percent of the government was not affected, according to University of Indianapolis Assistant Professor of Political Science and Pre-Law Advisor David Root.
“It [the shutdown] may have taken some of his leverage to negotiate for what he wants.”
What were the effects?
Of the 800,000 federal workers who were not paid, 420,000 federal workers were working without pay and another 380,000 were furloughed, or laid off, from the federal government, according to a fact sheet prepared by Senate Appropriations Committee staff. Those who worked without pay included federal law enforcement and corrections officers, Department of Homeland Security employees, Transportation Security Administration officers, firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service and forecasters from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to the fact sheet. Those who were furloughed include workers from the departments of Commerce, Housing and Urban Development and Transportation. The National Park Service, Forest Service and Internal Revenue Service were also furloughed, according to the fact sheet.
In an open letter to President Trump, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Nathan Cathura said that the situation had—at one point—deteriorated enough that the law enforcement officers who were working without pay were having to use a GoFundMe page that had been set up for federal workers. They relied on donations that were being made around the country for federal workers. Cathura also said that these workers were conducting important and complex investigations and protecting elected officials, which put them in a difficult position while working without pay.
“As the shutdown continues they [federal law enforcement officers] are being put in both a fiscally and personally compromising position that is antithetical to the way our nation should be treating those that protect us,” Cathura said. “Twenty-first century law enforcement requires research, analysis and technology. These critical investigative support elements are not working during the shutdown….The targets of our investigations now have an advantage of being better informed and better resourced than our members. This is an extremely dangerous situation that threatens the lives of our members and all Americans.”
One of the biggest concerns during the shutdown was the distribution of food stamps. According to Root, the federal government was originally expected to run out of money for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by the end of January, but the government was able to find a way to extend the money through February because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found some excess funding. As a result of this, they released the money for February in early January.
The shutdown had unprecedented effects on the aviation industry as well. In a joint statement, Paul Rinaldi, Joe DePete and Sara Nelson, presidents of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, respectively, said that they had “growing concern for the safety and security of our members, our airlines, and the traveling public due to the government shutdown.” According to the joint-statement released on Jan. 24, the associations were not able to begin to determine the amount of risks that appeared as a result of the shutdown.
According to Root, the political impact of the shutdown is mostly being felt by Trump. He is the one who is bearing most of the blame for both causing the shutdown and prolonging its effects.
“It [the shutdown] may have taken some of his leverage to negotiate for what he wants,” Root said. “[He wants] the border wall and what the Democrats don’t want to give him is any money for the border wall. From where I’m seeing it, he took the blame for that.”
Will it happen again? Probably.
“He’s determined to get his wall and there’s certain high-ranking Republicans who want to help him get his wall,” Root said. “That raises the question of: ‘If the Democrats aren’t going to cooperate, does he declare a national emergency [to get the wall]?’ That is a recipe for tyranny.”
If the government were to shut down again after Trump’s deadline, according to Root, it would have the same effects as the previous shutdown. He said that he believes that the reason why Trump agreed to fund the government for three weeks was because of the start of tax season. The IRS was one of the agencies who was affected by the recent shutdown, so there was a concern about whether the IRS would be able to receive returns.
“He [Trump] definitely can’t afford Americans not getting tax returns,” Root said. “I think that in a second round of a shutdown, [that] now you’re actually dealing with a live period where Americans are filing tax returns and expecting to get tax returns. We didn’t have that at the end of December and January, but to me that changes the whole calculus of what happens.”
What is a national emergency?
A national emergency opens up funding for the president to use to meet the needs associated with the particular way the emergency is defined, according to Root. The president’s ability to declare a national emergency is included in the executive powers of the office.
“When the country is in a state of emergency, or war, the [executive powers of the] president [are] pretty expansive on decision-making and spending,” Root said. “It also side-steps Congress and allows the president to act without getting Congressional authorization.”
According to Root, if Trump were to declare a national emergency, there would be no way to stop him or any future president from declaring a national emergency for basically everything. Root said that he hopes the courts would be able to recognize that the declaration is more than just about a border wall and that the issue would become more about presidential power.
“It has to do with the very foundation and structure of American government and why the Constitution was put in place to do what is does,” Root said. “I can understand the argument that you might call it a national emergency, but frankly, this [issue] has been around my whole life and longer. If it wasn’t a national emergency then, it’s not a national emergency now. It’s just you can’t get your way through Congress. It sets an extremely dangerous precedent for our separation of powers and checks and balances. That’s why I would hope the courts would step in and say ‘No. This is not constitutional.’”
What will happen in the end?
Root said that in the end, most shutdowns usually are blamed on the person who started them. In the case of the recent shutdown, Root said, Trump was blamed for it and would be blamed again, if the government shuts down for a second time.
“[Shutdowns] are not effective political tools,” Root said. “They backfire and get a disproportionate amount of attention….What will be interesting to see is, how does he frame this in the State of the Union coming up on Tuesday? There should be a wealth of clues on what he’s planning to do in his State of the Union address.”
As for the wall, Root said that it likely will be built, despite the potential shutdowns and the current impasse. However, it may not be in the way anyone is expecting and it may not even be close to what Trump wants.
“It’s going to come down to semantics,” Root said. “‘Did you build a wall? Did you put up a fence? Did you increase border security? Depending on what side of the political aisle you are, it’s going to basically be called a wall on the right or border security on the left. At the end of the day, it’s going to be some structure.”