Why Democrats and Republicans love to fight about immigration
Stop me if you've heard this before: The two elected branches of the federal government have a dispute, and at least one side wants to take the budget process hostage over said dispute.
This script has been acted out numerous times in Washington over the past decade, and politicians are about to participate in yet another remake of the same old story, this time over the issue of immigration. Aside from being boring and predictable, a government shutdown could have serious consequences that go beyond any interruption in national services. In the end, no progress will have been made, and perhaps that's the point: The topic of immigration serves both parties better in a fight than in a deal.
Previous shutdown fights have involved tax policies and ObamaCare, but this is the second bout of budgetary brinkmanship in a row to focus on immigration policy. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried it first at the beginning of the year in an attempt to force President Trump into signing a statutory version of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. Trump wanted to trade that for specific revisions to asylum policies and funding for his pet project: the wall on the southern border. It didn't take long — two days, in fact — for Schumer to fold.
This time, the fight went public when Schumer and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did a press spray in the Oval Office with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. What should have been an anodyne business-as-usual optic instead turned into a charged debate over funding for the border wall. Pelosi tried schooling Trump on the "equities" involved for the new Democratic House majority while Trump insisted that voters were more worried about national security. Over Schumer's objections, Trump declared himself "proud to shut down the government for border security."
And with that, the latest edition of the Budget Blinkfest commenced. With the expiration of a continuing resolution looming on Friday, both sides spent the weekend and Monday sticking to their guns. Schumer and Pelosi refused to consider any increase in spending for the border wall; Trump insisted he wanted $5 billion guaranteed for its construction. Republicans on Capitol Hill, wishing to avoid blame for even a partial shutdown, tried working the White House to find a way out of another game of chicken.
The Trump administration caved first. On Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the media that the president wouldn't insist on an earmark of $5 billion for the border wall in the appropriation, but would instead sign off on a previous bipartisan commitment for $1.6 billion. Rather than fight head-on, the press secretary explained, "We have other ways that we can get to that $5 billion," as long as Congress passed a bill with more flexibility on border security.
That deal has considerable support in the Senate, but Democrats appeared to back away from it after the signal from the White House. CNN's Manu Raju reported that the party was unhappy with providing a billion-dollar "slush fund" to the administration even though the proposal had bipartisan support earlier. Pelosi "formally" rejected the offer shortly afterward, keeping Washington on a trajectory for another shutdown.
If a shutdown comes, it's almost certain to last until the next session of Congress begins. The various services that will feel the effects of the shutdown will likely not get much attention over the next couple of weeks: The TSA will continue to operate as a critical function of government, so air travel will not experience any disruptions. Closures at national parks will inconvenience very few tourists over a Christmas holiday. If this extends beyond the start of the new session of Congress on January 3rd, it will get a lot more attention, but until then, it comes at a good time for both sides: Few people will be paying attention, and few will be inconvenienced.
So who will "win" a shutdown, the Democrats or Republicans? In terms of actual policy development, neither. Voters largely oppose shutdowns and see them as a failure of Washington politicians to do their jobs. Shutdowns contribute to an erosion of confidence in political institutions, which gives more power to the extremes of both parties and encourages the abandonment of the political process by those in the center. Populist uprisings among both Democrats and Republicans will only intensify as political institutions continue to produce futility and failure.
Nowhere is that failure more obvious than on immigration. Congress first authorized a border barrier in 2006 on a bipartisan vote, and the parameters for a comprehensive deal — a border wall and improved verification of valid worker status in exchange for normalization of those in the country and continued support for the DACA-eligible population — have not changed since. But neither side has budged in any meaningful way. If anything, their positions have become more extreme.
Why? Because neither party sees much benefit in compromising. Both sides sell themselves as being able to impose their will and their policies on the other, which disincentivizes any rational effort to find ways to accommodate. Those who remain adamant in all-or-nothing positions win approval from party activists, while those who take risks in working on a deal draw ridicule from their own base. Elections usually don't provide enough power to one side or the other for that kind of triumphalist imposition of policy; even after the 2008 election that gave Democrats a filibuster-proof Senate majority and the White House, the party's leadership conveniently put off immigration until after it lost the House majority in 2010.
If a shutdown occurs, it won't produce an actual permanent solution to this standoff. It will eventually end in some excuse to maintain the status quo.