If Congress doesn’t reach a deal on a government spending bill by midnight on December 21, one-quarter of the federal government will shut down. At issue is $5 billion in funding for a border wall that President Trump demanded and Democrats insisted was not forthcoming. Recent reports indicate that the president may back down, but no deal has yet been reached.
Congress has been working to pass legislation funding the federal government for months. In late September, they passed a bill for $854 billion to fund many of the biggest federal government agencies. But with the entire discretionary federal budget (the portion of the budget that’s at stake) in the range of $1.2 trillion, more than $300 billion in spending decisions were postponed with temporary funding bills, the most recent of which ends at midnight on Friday.
The result may be a government shutdown that harms federal employees and the economy during the holidays over an amount of money that, while small in federal government terms, would have a big impact on immigrants and for countless other government programs that do a lot with small budgets.
Disagreement Over a Border Wall
The president’s pledge to build a wall at the US-Mexico border was a signature campaign promise, and has been a signature rallying cry for opponents and resisters. Democratic leaders have agreed to an extension of the current level of $1.3 billion in spending for border fencing, but say no additional funding is forthcoming.
The impasse runs deep, with politicians and their supporters on both sides digging in. President Trump, in a reversal of typical shutdown politics where everyone tries to blame the other side, said that he would be “proud” to shoulder the blame for a shutdown. Meanwhile, likely 2019 House leader Nancy Pelosi derided the wall as “a manhood thing” for the president.
What Government Functions Would Stop in a Shutdown?
This shutdown would affect agencies whose funding was not secured in the September $854 billion spending package. Those include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State and Department of Commerce, among others. Agencies that were funded by the September bill, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education will not shut down.
Even the affected agencies wouldn’t shut down completely. Government workers considered “essential” would be required to come to work during a shutdown, even though their paychecks would be held until Congress ends the shutdown, when they would be paid retroactively.
“Essential” workers in the affected agencies include employees of the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Transportation Security Agency, federal prison employees, drug enforcement agents, diplomats, Secret Service and Forest Service firefighters, among others. These people would have to report to work without pay until the shutdown ends. In all, about 420,000 government employees would report to work without pay.
While those functions could continue during a shutdown, some 380,000 “non-essential” government employees would be sent home without pay for the duration of the shutdown. This would include such “non-essential” government functions as most Internal Revenue Service employees, most Environmental Protection Agency employees, and Food and Drug Administration food inspectors (romaine, anyone?). In past shutdowns, non-essential employees have been retroactively paid at the end of the shutdown.
Even a Partial Shutdown Would Hurt Federal Employees and the Economy
Previous shutdowns have lasted anywhere from a couple of days to three weeks. While some reports have tended to emphasize that mail and air travel won’t be affected during the busy holiday season, federal employee union representatives have pointed out that affording rent, food and gas – to say nothing of holiday gifts or revelries – could present impossible challenges for employees who take home an average of $500 per week.
More broadly, the 2013 full government shutdown that lasted 13 days was estimated to cost the economy $24 billion in lost economic activity. That’s roughly the economic equivalent of canceling Black Friday. While this partial shutdown should cost less on a day-by-day basis, the costs could still reach into the billions.
Members of Congress and the president need not worry about themselves, however. Since their pay is mandated in the Constitution, they will continue to pull their government paychecks during any shutdown.
Why $5 Billion Matters
The most obvious significance of this $5 billion are the possible effects of building a border wall. Less obvious are the lost opportunities from designating funding for a wall instead of more pressing needs.
Spending $5 billion on a wall is not just wasteful, it’s destructive. While $5 billion wouldn’t be enough to close off the entire border; continually adding to the southern border’s unnecessary fortifications could spell humanitarian, and even ecological, disaster. According to a joint report by the ACLU, Sierra Club and other organizations, existing border walls have “fragmented and degraded” wildlife habitat, including for endangered species, and have disturbed natural water flows in border wetlands – all while being exempt to the usual environmental and community impact assessments. The same report found that existing walls had contributed to local flooding, subjected local property owners to land seizures and disturbed important Indigenous cultural sites.
Most important, these walls increase the already significant danger in border crossings, likely increasing the number of deaths as migrants are driven into more remote and dangerous territory. The potential destructive power of $5 billion is clear.
On the flip side, while $5 billion is less than half of 1 percent of the more than $1 trillion federal budget that Congress allocates each year, many government-funded programs ranging from Meals on Wheels to the Peace Corps operate on far less than that and could substantially increase their services or impact with a $5 billion increase.
A recent analysis by my organization, the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, found that $5 billion would be enough to pay for Medicaid for 1.4 million Americans – roughly the population of New Hampshire. It would be enough to more than double federal spending on energy efficiency and renewable energy at a time when the US is failing to take any leadership on climate change. Alternatively, it could more than double current federal funding for the main agency to address substance use and mental health in the midst of twin opioid and suicide crises.
It could also more than double the budget for Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that naturalizes 700,000 new Americans each year, in a country with 11 million residents living in limbo thanks to the dysfunctional immigration system.
Resolution Is Inevitable, But Who Will Win?
The longest government shutdown in US history was only 21 days. Federal employees and their families will feel the pain, but sooner or later, a deal will be struck and the government will reopen. The best possible outcome is to reach a deal before the shutdown has a chance to do its damage.
But this is much easier said than done. Congressional leaders mainly want to avoid a shutdown, but the president must play along. The president’s position is not strong. Current assessments are that the Senate will not have the necessary 60 votes to pass a bill including the president’s $5 billion for a border wall, since they would need support from a number of Democrats. It’s entirely likely that the House would also fail to pass such a bill by a simple majority, a prospect that gets even dimmer in January after Democrats take over.
All of this looks good for opponents of a wall, but nothing is guaranteed. For the president’s demands to finally fall flat, Democratic leaders must stand firm, and Republican leaders must take a stand that shutting down the government over a proposal so linked to the president’s personal agenda is a bad idea. As usual, leaders of both parties will be heavily persuaded by what they perceive their constituents want, and that places the real power in the hands of the voters.