The curious case of a US government shutdown

Walid Jawad

Published: Updated:

Shutting down the government is not an option considered anywhere in the world, except in the US. It is mind-boggling to have the US government decide to shut itself down. Yes, it is a conscious decision not to fund the government.

Typically, this happens when Congress fails to pass a federal funding bill or when the US president decides not to sign the Congressional bill. This latest government shutdown was triggered by the inability of Congress to come together to pass a spending bill both Republicans and Democrats can agree to. As a result, the federal government is forced to shutter its non-essential operations.

Over the past few decades, elected officials in the White House and Congress have forced the government to suspend its operations many times over. The economic losses are far-reaching and inexcusable.

Government employees go without pay, the whole system of government is further fractured inciting the ire of the American people who typically punish the “responsible” party in the next election cycle.

Why decide to shutdown the government?

The Republican and Democratic parties were bickering over the border wall slated to be built along the US-Mexico border. President Trump has announced his willingness to shutdown the government unless the Democrats agree to fund the border wall.

Two weeks ago he said in this Oval Office meeting with the Congressional Democratic leadership that he would be “proud” to shutdown the government if Congress doesn’t fund the wall. The latest polls show that 51 percent of Americans blame the president for this partial government shutdown, while 37 percent blame Democrats.

Trump demanded Congress include a $5 billion earmarked to building the border wall to fulfill a campaign promise he made to his constituency. During the presidential elections leading to him winning the presidency in 2016, he made building the wall a cornerstone of his campaign.

Trump’s proposed wall is the singular item on his agenda to guarantee border security against illegal immigration. Although the Democrats dispute the effectiveness of the wall, they agree with Trump on the need for border security.

For no other reason but to score political points the two political parties have turned this aspect of the greater immigration failure into a fiscal policy dispute to shutdown the government

Walid Jawad

The projected cost for a border wall will run anywhere from $10 to $25 billion. The primary point of disagreement is not the project cost, but president promise to make Mexico pay for it.

In its early days, the White House attempted to pressure Mexico to build the wall but failed. Trump quickly turned to the American people demanding Congress fund his wall. According to Trump, there are two issues at hand: criminal elements illegally coming into the country to commit violent acts and smuggle drugs, and second, illegal immigrants burdening the US economy.

American taxpayers suddenly found themselves on the hook for an untold budget. Die-hard Trump supporters believe the answer lies in building the wall, but not all Republicans do. Within Congress, upwards of 25 percent of Republican members are not in favor of funding the wall according to a USA Today poll taken during the last funding battle.

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Border security can be achieved by a combination of surveillance and barriers according to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), a trusted non-partisan government agency. What is surprising is the already built combination of walls and fences covering 580 miles (930km) of the 1,989 miles (3,201km) US-Mexico border.

The wall Trump wants to build is part of an immigration reform challenge, which consecutive US administrations have failed to address. For no other reason but to score political points the two political parties, Republicans and Democrats, have turned this aspect of the greater immigration failure into a fiscal policy dispute to shutdown the government.

What happens when the US government turns off the lights?

The US government ran out of money to fund a number of US agencies on midnight last Friday. Government workers in the Departments of State, Interior, Justice, and Transportation among others have asked their non-essential workers to stay home; i.e. be furloughed, unless they are deemed essential.

Essential employees, on the other hand, will have to report to work but would not get paid for the work they perform during a shutdown, at least not until a spending bill is passed. Essential and critical functions of government, those operations pertaining to the safety of human life and the protection of property, are the only functions to continue through a shutdown.

How will this affect others around the world?

US Embassies around the world will continue to function as normal. Entry points to the US would continue to welcome travelers. TSA and customs officers will report to work although none of them will be paid for the duration of the shutdown.

Government to government diplomatic and economic will not cease. The outside world will not notice any change in US functions particularly if the shutdown is short. Longer suspension of government operations will force affected agencies to halt different parts of their operations in a controlled fashion.

Yet internally the effects are felt, during the Obama 16 day shutdown in October of 2013 around two million government employees were furloughed or required to work without pay and the economy lost $24 billion. This is a similar number of employees who are affected by the current shutdown.

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A political battle on this scale presumes a winner and a loser. In this case, there are only losers, bigger losers, and ultimate losers. The Republican Party is already perceived to have lost by the majority of the American people, but government workers are losing as they pay in lost wages, while the ultimate loser is the American people as a whole.

They are losing financially by forgoing gains the nation’s GDP would accumulate. Worse, the people are becoming less trusting in their government institutions.

Whenever the idea of shutting down the government is kicked around, elected officials must recall why they were sent to Washington in the first place: to find solutions, not manufacture issues for political reasons.

If failed states do all that they can to avoid disruption in governance, US politicians must never consider a government shutdown. When they do, as they’ve chosen on Friday, they are reneging on another promise: to make America Great Again.

Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at US Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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