A Primer on the “Government Shutdown”

It seems Senate Democrats are determined to have a government shutdown probably because of the default requirement of the Democratic base of “total resistance” to Trump. They are attaching the demand that DACA be “fixed” as a condition to funding the federal government (as OMB director Nick Mulvaney pointed out this morning, Democrats do not oppose any of the funding specifics of the continuing resolution), because they know that if DACA is part of larger immigration deal they lose a lot of leverage. More on that point in a moment.

Democrats are banking on the premise of the media-academic complex that a government shutdown will be blamed on Republicans. The second premise of the media-academic complex is that Republicans are supposed to forever be the Washington Generals to the Democratic Progresstrotters, and roll over for “the side of history.” Trump just might be the kind of person who will call an end to this perverse state of affairs. In addition, Mulvaney suggested this morning that the Trump Administration is prepared to hunker down for a good long while, as many agencies can use holdover funds and “transfer authority” to pay for priority services—something Obama refused to do back in 2013.

But as I noted here in October, it is a myth that the government actually “shuts down.” Worth repeating here:

This really is fake news of the highest order. Imagine: if the federal government runs out of money at midnight on Friday, the mail will stop being delivered, Social Security checks won’t go out, the military will stop fighting our enemies, the TSA will stop frisking grandma at the airport, local police won’t patrol the streets, public schools will close. . . Oh, wait: none of that will happen.

What will happen? “Non-essential personnel” in Washington will be told to stay home. If they’re “non-essential,” why not make that permanent? Social Security checks will continue to go out, our military will stay on post, etc. About the only thing that regular citizens might notice is that federal facilities will be closed. No trips to the Smithsonian, the Washington monument will be closed, etc.

There are something like 50,000 units of government in the United States, if you count all the local mosquito abatement districts, etc. State and local government will go on as usual—the level of government that most of us see and interact with the most. This is one glory of a federalist system—as attenuated as it has become over the last 75 years. It is the special conceit of Washington that a budget impasse there means that “government” is shutting down. If only! Lots of government—including many auto-pilot programs of the federal government like Social Security—will go on as if nothing had happened. . . The point is, the “government shutdown” in Washington affects very little of the government that most of us see and depend on.

As I game out the larger immigration debate, it seems that if a deal is going to be made, it will involve a bargain over four elements: the Wall, DACA, chain migration, and the visa lottery. The most important parts of the problem are the last two (especially chain migration). Trump, and many Republicans, favor accommodating the DACA “dreamers.” If Democrats were smart, they’d give Trump his wall in return for preserving chain migration and the visa lottery, because the wall is not the most important thing. It is more symbolic than real for both sides of the debate. But I suspect Democrats can’t give in on the wall because the left cares more about symbols. (To be sure, lots of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters also place a lot of importance on the wall, but the real world effects are quite limited.) Democrats would clearly like to remove DACA from the elements to be traded in a larger deal. That’s one reason why the DACA angle to the current government shutdown drama looms so large.

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