As I write this column, the federal shutdown is already in its fourth week, which makes it the longest one ever. I hope by the time my column is printed, the standoff will have been resolved, but I am not optimistic about that prospect.
In 1978, as I was moving into my second year in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), I was caught up as an innocent victim of a federal shutdown. On that occasion, the issue in contention was taxpayer funding for abortion. Like many other federal employees, I missed a paycheck, but then probably because some administrative work in Washington fell between the cracks, I missed two checks and then three. By the time the snafu in my case was straightened out, I ended up getting three months pay all in the first week of 1979, which put me in a higher tax bracket for that year. The whole bungle cost me several hundred dollars in added taxes, over and above the stress and inconvenience of having to dig into my meager savings to get by.
My story is just one example of the trouble shutdowns cause in real people’s lives. Right now 800,000 federal workers, including TSA agents who protect our airports and Coast Guard members who patrol our seas, are without pay.
President Trump’s economic advisers are now admitting that the shutdown is taking a much bigger toll on the economy than they had previously estimated. And this self-inflicted wound comes on the heels of the worst fourth quarter drop in the stock market in ten years.
Even presidents with much better records and purer political intentions on the issue of immigration have had difficulty advancing legislation to tackle a problem that is inherently complex. But according to data from a recent New York Times article, a lot of progress has been made in the past two decades. Illegal immigration reached a peak at the end of the Clinton administration, and then with some bipartisan cooperation after 9/11, levels were cut in half during the terms of George W. Bush, and further reduced by half again under President Obama. In 2017, illegal immigration came down even further until ticking back up in 2018 to the levels achieved during Obama’s terms.
So why the sudden crisis over the need for Trump’s promised wall? Keep in mind that President Trump had a Republican House and Senate to work with for the past two years, including even the first week when this shutdown began. Yet he could not muster enough support in his own Republican Congress to fund his wall, so he decided to try to “get a win” by precipitating a crisis and waging a political war against the new Democratic House over this issue.
This is reminiscent of the migrant caravan, that over-hyped previous crisis timed conveniently to coincide with our recent election, but which has mostly disappeared from the news since then. I wonder how National Guard troops who missed Thanksgiving with their families feel about that political stunt now, in light of a purported “invasion” that never really materialized.
If President Trump wants more than 5 billion dollars for a section of border wall, he should make his case to Congress by introducing legislation, rather than shutting down the government and playing a very harmful and dangerous game of Chicken. And if his intention was to lay the blame on Democrats for the shutdown, then he has already failed, because surveys show that most of the public point their fingers squarely at him instead.
This entire episode has been a gigantic political gamble and miscalculation by the president. And now he has even backtracked on his often repeated campaign promises that Mexico will pay for the wall, as he tries to revise history to claim that he never really said that.
It appears instead that we are all paying for a wall that isn’t even being built. And many of those who really help keep us safe are expected to continue working for free, or to leave their good jobs and find other ways to provide for their families.
Our billionaire president does not appear to understand or care about the harm that he is causing in so many people’s lives.
We are a better country than this, Mr. Trump. We deserve better leadership!
John McColgan writes from his home in Joseph.