The Trump junta has now reduced the bulk of the federal government to the activity level of the chief executive himself. Instead of public services, we get the president’s inane tweets.
Congress has declined to perform basic functions, such as enact a budget, for some time. Contrary to the barren analysis in mainstream media, this is not due to folks on Capitol Hill being perversely unwilling to commune with each other. It springs, rather, from the growth of a right-wing faction that will generate legislative gridlock to sabotage programs it doesn’t like but lacks the power to repeal. Obamacare is the foremost example.
The new, additionally disruptive element is that even deals that can be struck require the imprimatur of a White House bereft of executive competence. The components of this dysfunction are top staffers who are wedded to extremist intransigence, such as that Stephen Miller person (in Matt Taibbi’s lovely formulation, “escaped med-school cadaver”), and a president who is unable to make decisions on matters he doesn’t begin to understand. This show of malfeasance provides an extra excuse for Republican majorities in Congress to defer simple up-or-down votes on questions that would otherwise easily pass, in conditions of minimal governing competence.
The result is that measures enjoying overwhelming majority support in the country get held up. Exhibit A is reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). B is the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) dreamers. The latter is a genuine emergency, as deportations are happening every day—what’s more, it’s an emergency the Trump administration entirely inflicted on itself, when it fecklessly let the Obama accord on DACA lapse this fall, evidently for no better reason than its Obama parentage.
Whether Republicans in Congress actually support CHIP or DACA is debatable. There is no question that they would vote in favor of both programs if confronted with a “clean” vote. But holding such votes requires the permission of Republican leaders in control of both houses, who are by now conditioned to conduct legislative debate as a glorified form of hostage-taking.
Indeed, it has become normal for hostages of this type to be taken for the sake of extremist right-wing priorities, such as the farkakte border wall, or shifts of spending from domestic programs to defense boondoggles. Ordinarily in this struggle, somebody says uncle, differences are split, and a deal gets done. Now, however, there is the extra hurdle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To feel obliged to make concessions and compromise, one needs to know one’s standing in the political argument. Our deluded president is not likely to admit it when he is losing that argument. He has been quoted to the effect that a shutdown might be a political triumph.
On the real side, even in the absence of action by Congress, there is no obstacle to the continuing operation of CHIP. Nothing in the world, except the mendacity of state-level political leaders, prevents state governments from raising money on their own to fill in any interruptions in federal funding.
Instead of public services, we get the president’s inane tweets.
Legalization of the dreamers is different. It does require federal action to grant residency status and roll back increasingly cruel and predatory immigration enforcement. State and local governments can provide some resistance, but that is not a durable solution.
The media is not exactly covering itself in glory. The wingnut precincts are behaving predictably, generating sophistic hashtags aimed at shifting blame for this morass. Did you know that Hillary Clinton shut down the federal government? If you didn’t, you soon will.
What about the goo-goos? Of course there is the usual, tired trope that glosses over blame and bemoans the failure of folks to be reasonable, which is akin to asking, why oh why can’t North and South Korea just hug it out?
Then we have the pseudo-intellectual upset over the failure of Congress to enact annual budgets, rather than relying on endless stop-gap measures. All of a sudden, everybody is a budget wonk.
And then there’s the ersatz national security posture, which impresses nobody. How will we be defended? We aren’t paying our spooks. Assassinations are being postponed. What about our military, how will they manage? In fact, natsec agencies are already deeply awash in excess dollars. The United States can still obliterate the rest of the world several times over. It operates hundreds of military installations in places we are paying for but never hear about. Pity instead the minimum wage workers who mop and wax the floors of the Pentagon. Federal civil servants are likely to be reimbursed for lost salary, as they have in past shutdowns. Not so the employees of contractors.
What sort of compromises might be tenable? Let’s put aside for a moment whether anybody on the Republican side actually wants to make a deal. They all at least need to look like they want a deal.
Both CHIP and DACA are emergencies, in somewhat different ways. Should one or the other be sold out?
It is a coalition of interests that see themselves as disparate. Dumping one interest for the sake of another threatens the entire constellation.
Morality aside, this would be a politically foolish move for Democrats. The simple truth is that the party is not unified by a universalist, class-based ideology. Under present circumstances, it is a coalition of interests that see themselves as disparate. Dumping one interest for the sake of another threatens the entire constellation. Identity politics makes for fragile alliances.
Whether some money for a wall should be swallowed is a secondary, tactical consideration. A wall is idiotic, wasteful, and conveys a message of intolerance and bigotry. We could weigh this against the irreversible harm to many individuals in the event of DACA deportations or interruption of medical care for children. In general, negotiating with terrorists is inadvisable, but it can be useful to allow a pizza delivery in return for release of some hostages.
The Democrats really have aces in the hole for this hand. Put aside arcane matters of legislative procedure. Normalization of the Dreamers and CHIP are very popular. There should be no excuse for the failure to save both. Also popular is the daily operation of the federal government—something that should have sunk into bomb-throwing congressional leaders back when they triggered the massively unpopular shutdown of 1995.
Everybody knows Democrats are for these things, and that Republicans aren’t. It’s really pretty simple.