There are some competing schools of thought on the realities of a shutdown. While no one really wants a shutdown, the conservatives who believe in limited government, and smaller government, tend to believe that shutting down an intrusive, expensive, and officious government for a couple of weeks is not necessarily a bad thing; while the progressive liberals who believe in big government view shutdowns, even brief ones, as unmitigated disasters – because they tend to believe that government is essential to control our economy, our happiness, and our daily lives.
The truth can be found somewhere in the middle, but it is instructive to take a brief glance at the history of government shutdowns, so we can get a better idea of how beneficial or disastrous they might be. There was a 10 day shutdown in 1976, when we had a Republican President (Gerald Ford) and both houses of Congress controlled by the Democrats. That lasted 12 days. In 1977 there were three shutdowns, all between Oct. 1 and Dec. 8. Both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats, but there was a Democrat in the White House (Jimmy Carter). Two of those shutdowns lasted eight days and one 12 days. There was one shutdown in 1978 and one in 1979, again with the Democrats controlling both houses and President Carter in the Oval Office. In 1978 the shutdown lasted 17 days; in 1979, 11.
There was a five-day shutdown the Democrat Bill Clinton was President in November 1995, when Republicans had majorities in both Houses; and a second shutdown about a month later in December, stretching into January 1996. That one lasted 21 days. There was a 17-day shutdown in 2013 while President Obama was in the White House, the Democrats had the Senate and the Republicans the House. During that shutdown the Obama administration worked hard to make the shutdown as painful as possible for “middle America.” The Trump administration is working just as hard to minimize the negative effects of the current shutdown.
This one began Dec. 21 with Republican President Trump in office, and this is likely to be the first one that will reflect a change in the composition of Congress. When the shutdown began the Republicans had majorities in both houses; but if the shutdown lasts until Jan. 3, when the new Congress is sworn in, the Democrats will have the majority in the House.
Almost all the shutdowns have one thing in common – each party blames the other party. We have had shutdowns with divided government, and one-party government; brief shutdowns and lengthy ones. This one is a bit different in that (at least until Jan. 3), the majorities in both houses and the President agree on a spending bill. But under the “60-vote” rule in the US Senate, one needs a super-majority to pass legislation. This effectively gives the minority party the control of the Senate (which can’t be a desirable thing), but we’ll defer discussion of the Rules of the Senate for another time.
Let’s return to discussing “the wall.” The Democrats declare they are in favor of border control and oppose “open borders,” but every time there is a vote relevant to the subject, they find a reason to vote against border control and in favor of “open borders,” and the Courts are if anything even more prone to thwarting the will of Congress and the President.
The Democrats in the Senate really don’t want a border wall at all, although most of them declared their support for it at various times – but that opposition is secondary to their desire to oppose President Trump, and they know the most effective way to do this is to separate him from his base, and the best way to do that is to have the President “cave” on the wall. If he gets no wall, his stoutest supporters will be disillusioned and will either stay home in droves on election day or vote for a challenger in the primaries (splitting the party) or a third-party candidate. Any of those alternatives will hand the 2020 election to the Democrats. The same practice worked in 1992, when the Democrats maneuvered President Bush 41 into raising taxes – which shattered his support and led to the third party candidacy of H Ross Perot and the election of Bill Clinton. President Trump also understands this, and that is why he will not give in, and even now is working to find ways to fund the wall by other means.
We also might reflect on the massive size of government, which actually is being trimmed under President Trump. Most agencies and departments have seen significant decreases in employment, and much of those that have seen increases are temporary hiring in response to natural disasters. The more we can shrink the size of government, the smaller and less obtrusive it is, the fewer functions we surrender to it (or allow it to seize), the cheaper it will be to operate and the easier it will be to fund. That probably is the best long-term solution to the “shutdown” problem.