Monday, March 25, 2019 | ePaper
Challenges in the US border wall
The partial US government shutdown began when Congress and Mr Trump failed to reach an agreement over a budget bill in December. The Republicans had passed an initial funding bill including $5bn (Â£4bn) for the wall, when they still had a majority in the House, but they could not get the necessary 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate.Democrats won the majority of the House in the November mid-term elections, and the new representatives were sworn.As the shutdown drags on, there will be a creeping paralysis, affecting everything from the Internal Revenue Service's ability to pay out tax refunds to rental assistance payments in public housing to whether the interior department can pay out treaty rights obligations to Indian tribes.The fact it is a partial, not total, government shutdown has perhaps tempted Trump to make a political calculation that the pain is preferable to giving in or being seen to give in on his promise to build the wall. It is worth remembering how fundamental this was to his campaign, his political identity, perhaps even his psyche.
Recently Vice-President Mike Pence told Fox News: Bottom line, if there's no wall, there's no deal. Pelosi, meanwhile, told reporters on Capitol Hill: We're not doing a wall. Does anybody have any doubt that we are not doing a wall? A foreign visitor to the US might not immediately spot the signs of malaise. In grey and chilly Washington, traffic still rolls, trains still run, the shows goes on.
The current shutdown has not affected three quarters of the government, including the Pentagon and the postal service, which have secure funding. But there is a gradual sense of things grinding to a standstill, small but telling harbingers of imperial decline. The Smithsonian Institution's 17 museums and zoo are closed (although the animals are still getting fed). Couples in Washington cannot get marriage licences. There are two chants that everyone remembers from Donald Trump's campaign rallies. One is Lock her up!, aimed at Hillary Clinton, a demand not likely to be met unless America becomes a banana republic. The other is build that wall! It is now crunch time for this central, defining promise of the Trump candidacy and "make America great again" movement. The US president says he will not support a bill to fully fund the government until he secures $5.6bn for a wall on the US-Mexico border.So quarter of the US government has been shut down for two weeks, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers without pay. After Friday's talks with congressional Democrats at the White House, there is still no end in sight. Indeed, no one should assume Trump was bluffing when he said he was willing to keep the government closed for months or even years, or that he would consider using emergency powers an ominous phrase in any democracy under strain to bypass Congress and get the wall built.
It has come to this because there is no political incentive for Trump or his nemesis, the newly re-elected House speaker Nancy Pelosi, to blink first. Both are under intense pressure from their respective bases to hold firm and resist concessions. The system has delivered divided government with no common ground. Nationally, 800,000 employees from the departments of homeland security and transportation and other agencies have been furloughed or are working without pay. Even as China lands a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, most employees at Nasa are on furlough, with the small percentage who remain working without pay. On the day he launched his unlikely run for president, descending an escalator at Trump Tower in New York, Trump declared: I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I'll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mexico rejected the idea but Trump repeated the promise in almost every speech and interview, insisting the estimated $23bn barrier is necessary to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the US. For supporters and detractors alike, it became the ultimate symbol of his xenophobic vision of America. Democrats' victory in the House in the midterms election means the dream has probably slipped away, but Trump cannot afford to admit it.
When, last year, the Republican-controlled Senate approved a stopgap measure to keep the government open, he was poised to sign it until rightwing talking heads complained that he was capitulating. In that sense, it is not a Trump shutdown or Pelosi shutdown. It is a Rush Limbaugh shutdown, an Ann Coulter shutdown. Rightwing minority rule is now holding the country to ransom. For their part, Pelosi and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, see no reason to impose a medieval solution on a 21st century problem. They are also aware that Democrats were elected in 2018 by voters eager to resist Trump in general and the wall in particular. To give an inch would be seen as a betrayal. Pelosi declared this week: How many more times can we say no? Nothing for the wall. Trump and the Democratic leaders could not even agree whether their talks had gone well. Trump insisted the meeting had been very productive, whereas Pelosi described the conversation as sometimes contentious. And where, in all this, is Mitch McConnell? The Senate majority leader has been lurking on the sidelines, saying little other than that measures approved by the House are non-starters in the Senate without the president's support. The New York Times noted: By absenting himself, Mr McConnell had hoped to push the blame for a prolonged shutdown on to Democrats while protecting Republicans running for re-election in 2020 including himself.
But with some Republicans becoming restless, it is not clear whether the strategy is sustainable. The National Park Service is operating with a skeleton staff. Some parks may be accessible, others closed completely. The National Park Service is providing no visitor services such as toilets, facility and road maintenance and trash collection. Campgrounds have begun closing due to sanitation concerns. For now, Trump has designated a working group led by Pence, and including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, to conduct more negotiations. But the stalemate looks set to overtake the longest shutdown on record: 21 days under Bill Clinton in 1996. The president's best hope now is to turn the dispute to his advantage by using Democrats as a foil in the 2020 presidential election.With bitter irony given the issue at hand, the shutdown has reached America's 62 immigration courts. Hundreds of judges are on furlough, and only cases of immigrants in detention are being heard. On ABC's commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, Kevin McAleenan, said the deaths were "absolutely devastating. Our agents did everything they could, as soon as these children manifested symptoms of illness, to save their lives," he said. El Paso aid agencies overwhelmed as 1,600 migrants are cast on to streets. Asked if the federal government bore any responsibility, he said it was a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted solution.
He also called the situation at the border a humanitarian crisis and said children were "coming through a system built for adults who are violators of the law. What we've done immediately, he said, is that we do medical checks of children, 17 and under, as they come into our process. That's not a capacity we've had. McAleenan spoke positively of aid to central American countries, with whom he said the US should work.Trump threatened to cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. While the shutdown goes on, hundreds of thousands of federal workers remain without pay and key functions at agencies covering the environment, agriculture and other sectors are affected.