Washington Wednesday: Government shutdown

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 16th of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday. Today, the government shutdown.

This goes back to the Friday before Christmas. December 21st, spending authority for about 25 percent of the federal government expired.

That triggered a partial government shutdown.

REICHARD: Now, much of the federal government is fully funded through September. That’s the end of the fiscal year. But lawmakers couldn’t agree on a slice of federal funding—most notably for the State Department, the Justice Department, and the Department of Homeland Security.

The sticking point: President Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for a barrier on the southern U.S. border with Mexico. Democrats say they will have no part of it, and negotiations have made little progress over the last 25 days. This now constitutes the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

EICHER: Here now to analyze the situation is Henry Olsen. He’s a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also writes the Politics page for our sister publication WORLD Magazine.

Henry, good morning.

HENRY OLSEN, GUEST: Good morning.

EICHER: Henry, you’ve been around Washington a long time, so you’ve seen shutdowns before. Outside of this being the longest shutdown ever, could you put this one in context for us? How does it compare?

OLSEN: Well, it compares in the sense that the side that is arguably causing it, the side that seems to be sticking in the most is the side that’s ostensibly being blamed, i.e. the president.

However, it’s unlike this in that there’s very little poll movement—that President Trump’s job rating is only down very slightly over the past month. And it suggests that opinions about Trump and the Republicans are pretty well-set, that the president does not suffer a lot of downside from doing this, and he only has limited amount of upside to begin with, so it’s not like he’s forfeiting a whole lot of that.

And that’s what makes this unlike other shutdowns and why it is likely to continue rather than to come to a quick end.

EICHER: President Trump continues to insist he will not sign legislation that doesn’t fund a border wall. Although, he seems to be telegraphing that he’ll take something other than $5.7 billion, but something. And Democrats say they’re not going to pass one that does, other than the single dollar bill that Nancy Pelosi offered. So this really strikes me as the definition of an impasse. However, we know it can’t go on forever. Do you see some potential off-ramps here?

OLSEN: Well, I mean, the obvious off-ramp is both sides give a little and declare victory. The fact that we haven’t seen it yet doesn’t mean we won’t see it. If I were Nancy Pelosi, I really would not want to go into the State of the Union address, which is going to be Trump’s Tour de Force and allow him the opportunity to say, “I will open the government tomorrow if the Democrats are willing to make a fair deal.” She seems to think that she can withstand that sort of thing, but we will find out, because I would not at all be surprised if this goes into the State of the Union, which is going to be in two weeks, and then we’re going to see whether or not giving Trump the biggest stage a president can have turns public opinion.

EICHER: You know, I find it curious that the White House chose to have this fight right as the Democrats took control of the House. I mean, obviously the Republicans had control of the House, the Senate, and the White House for the past two years. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to stage the wall fight at any number of points in those first two years?

OLSEN: Well, I mean, let’s remember that the wall fight gets attached to appropriations for discretionary spending. There was a deal between Paul Ryan and the Senate Republicans and Democrats about a year and a half ago that put those amounts into law for at least a year, and the president signed off on it, as he said later, reluctantly. So that took it out of the run-up to the midterm.

And then he started the fight when Republicans were in control of the House. But the thing is that because of our rules about the filibuster, control of both chambers isn’t control of both chambers unless you have 60 votes in the Senate. So Chuck Schumer held it up when Republicans were willing to give him that, waiting for Pelosi.

So the whole idea that he waited for the Democrats to be in control of the House is, in fact, false. But the Republicans could not do it on their own. They always required Democratic support, and that was something that was not forthcoming.

EICHER: Henry, I reported on Monday some of the economic effects of the shutdown. There could be a real impact on employment, economic growth. And of course there’s economic data we simply don’t have access to right now. Then all of those federal workers who aren’t getting paid. That’s going to add to the unemployment rate, and that’s not a small number. Still, these are mostly short-term effects. Do you see anything long-term?

OLSEN: Well, if nothing changes going forward, eventually they are going to have to reopen the government. The question is who’s going to blink. Now, ideally neither side blinks. Again, the ideal circumstance is both sides work out a compromise, and they declare victory, and they go home.

But, I see very little downside for the president because he already has a very high disapproval rating, but by fighting for this he is maintaining support among his strong supporters, so he’s keeping that up. He’s not fighting over an irrelevancy. He’s fighting over something that his base really cares about.

So, that’s why it is a difficult thing to resolve, because both sides see little downside to continuing, and neither side sees a whole lot of upside. It’s just the people who get caught in the middle, which is about 320 million Americans.

EICHER: I don’t like putting it this way, but I’m going to do it anyway. Who do you think is “winning” this battle politically?

OLSEN: Neither side is winning politically, except to the extent that Trump has always been upside-down in his approval rating since about February or March of 2017. At some point, Trump needs to get his approval rating into the high 40s to have a good shot at reelection. He has not been able to do that since the earliest days of his administration.

My argument, as I put out in The Washington Post, is that he doesn’t need to do that with this fight. But he does need to do it on other fights and that by holding firm on this fight, he buys loyalty from his base, which he will inevitably need to cash in on something else.

Now, whether the president sees is that way is another matter. But, right now, neither side is gaining significantly, neither side is losing significantly, we remain stuck in the trench warfare of World War Trump and neither side has broken through the other lines.

EICHER: We’ve already had a few Democrats throw their hats into the ring for 2020, so the presidential election season just gets earlier and earlier. Do you think that this shutdown is in any way a campaign issue, or by that point do you think this is just a distant memory?

OLSEN: Generally, I think it will be a distant memory. The thing is that shutdowns eventually end. Their effect dissipates in the polls pretty quickly, barring something pretty unusual like what happened with Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1995 where it really help crystalize Clinton as somebody who was between the left and the right.

In this case, the president’s views are well-known. People’s opinions about the president are well-set. Nothing about what’s going on changes that, and the Democrats will have plenty of other reasons to be outraged against the president later in the year. Because the Democrats are outraged at everything the president does.

EICHER: And vice versa, right? To be fair.

OLSEN: Well, I mean, look at the reaction about he serves Wendy’s to Clemson players yesterday and “Oh! That’s an outrage!” Why don’t we just get outraged about the flowers he has on the Oval Office desk.

EICHER: Henry Olsen is a senior fellow for the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Henry, it’s always great to talk with you. Thanks so much.

OLSEN: Thanks for having me on.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) The Capitol is seen on the 24th day of a partial government shutdown after a weekend snowstorm, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. 

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