It was roughly three weeks ago when the longest government shutdown in American history came to an end in a frankly shocking moment of bipartisanship. The recent spending bill – passed in Congress and then signed into law by President Trump – has given the federal government and the nearly 800,000 employees affected, three weeks of momentary respite, but February 15this just around the corner, and the possibility of a long-term compromise remains uncertain.
Government shutdowns aren’t all that uncommon. In fact, since the concept was implemented in 1976 to force Congress to pass budgeting laws by their given deadlines, there have been a total of twenty-one shutdowns, more often than not over the appropriations bill for the upcoming fiscal year. These shutdowns have become a form of political coercion by one or both chambers of Congress to pass (or prevent the passage of) a bill with highly divisive elements. With the exception of G.W. Bush, every Presidential administration since Carter has seen at least one government shutdown. During both Reagan and Clinton’s presidencies, the conflict lay with whether or not to fund more social welfare programs. For the Obama administration, it was Obamacare. And now, two years into the Trump presidency, the government has already shut down twice over immigration policy.
Getting the 2019 appropriations legislation passed was promising to be a rocky process even before President Trump got involved. Given that the moderate middle ground has all but dissolved from beneath our feet, it’s a miracle there were even hints of bipartisanship. Our country is caught in the jaws of polarization, and it is truly difficult to think of a time in history when we have been so fiercely divided. Historically, polarization is a symptom – indeed, even the natural predecessor – of democratic erosion. Lack of compromise leads to a political stalemate, which lends itself in turn to a deeply disenfranchised public. Legislators, desperate to appease their frustrated constituencies, may even be convinced to throw in their lot with populist fringe candidates.
Hence our President. There is no need to go into detail about why President Trump is not traditional executive branch material; this is a subject that has already been discussed ad-nauseam by people far more qualified than a freshmen undergraduate on her first foray into political science. Trump is not a normal President. His administration is not, in any sense of the word, a normal administration. He appears to act on whims and/or alternating bouts of fancy and rage, and seems to enjoy sowing seeds of racial fear and paranoia with his alarmist rhetoric.
But to dismiss President Trump as some deranged old bigot with anger issues is to fatally underestimate his authoritarian potential. Part of Trump’s MO is his blatant disregard for political norms. We have become so desensitized to his repeated violations, in fact, that we’ve begun to expect them. And this is where we begin to veer dangerously in the direction of democratic erosion, because when we allow people in positions of power to continually undermine norms with no credible repercussions, we allow them to set alarming precedents.
Shutting the government down and refusing to reopen it on account of the appropriations bill lacking the legislation to fund a wall along the Mexican border is a prime example. As one would naturally expect, the government is not meant (nor especially prepared) to run on zero funding for more than a month, and the devastation was immediate and catastrophic. Federal courts were unable to process cases, research in government labs ground to a halt, the FDA could not continue its inspections, and an estimated 800,000 federal workers went without pay, although many – particularly members of the law enforcement community – continued to show up to work and perform their civic duties. It was an economic, political, and social nightmare, and our President was content to do nothing. While Congress at least attempted – however unsuccessfully – to come to some sort of compromise, Trump stone-walled, refusing to sign any bill without funding for a border wall that a majority of America doesn’t want.
It’s unsettling to see a President so clearly uninterested in compromise in such a dire situation. Trump was unrepentant, threatening to let the shutdown go on “for months, even years.” It felt a little like the executive version of throwing a fit, so resistant was Trump to “losing” that he was willing to sacrifice the functionality of his own government before giving in to Democrats. It’s an abuse of powers if I’ve ever seen one, a violation of institutional forbearance, and one of the most direct threats Trump has made to our democracy thus far. A President should not exercise his ability to take paychecks away from hundreds of thousands of federal employees just because he’s not getting his way.
Even though Trump eventually gave in and signed the short-term bill, the question about whether or not he will allow the government to function after February 15th remains unclear. Congress has come up with a decent compromise, but Trump’s response to this new legislation has been characteristically all over the board. It seems that once again, the fate of our federal government lies in the hands of Trump’s erratic and unpredictable mood swings.