Speaker Pelosi Holds All the Cards

Until recently, the government was shut down for over a month. During that time, over 800,000 federal government employees missed not one, but two, paychecks. These employees have families to support, groceries to buy, mortgages and credit card bills to pay; their health insurance was even put on hold. CareerBuilder reports that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and federal employees are no exception.  With most of them already going through their savings following the first missed paycheck, they were soon out of options. There were no more expenses left to cut, and the few banks and businesses who understood their situations were outliers. What’s worse is that many of these furloughed employees were called back to work without compensation, so finding a second job was off the table. 

Prior to the shutdown, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate unanimously passed a continuing resolution that would have continued to fund the government. Senators had been told prior to passing the bill that the President would support it once it reached his desk. The Republican-controlled House then added on $5.7 billion in border-wall funding, a measure that would never get the 60 votes necessary for it to pass in the Senate once more. In addition, President Trump reneged on his end of the deal, saying that he would no longer support the continuing resolution. Instead, he insisted that he would not reopen the government unless he got the $5.7 billion dollars in wall-funding stipulated in the House’s bill. Immediately afterward, Congress went into recess, and we were stuck in political purgatory for over a month thereafter.

Since Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats assumed power in the House, they have been passing spending bills, both for the broader government and piecemeal. In practice, they were passing continuing resolutions in order to open the government so that Democrats and Republicans could debate how to best pursue border security without placing innocent Americans in the crossfire. The Senate, however, had not been allowed to vote on any of the bills passed by the House, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said he would not put any bill up to a vote unless it received the President’s endorsement. In theory, it was a clever tactic to protect Republican lawmakers, but it was feckless and disgusting.

The American people wanted the shutdown to end, and they knew squarely where to place the blame. The New York Times reported that over 55% of Americans do not want a wall to be built, and over 57% blamed President Trump or Congressional Republicans for the shutdown, compared to 34% placing blame on the Democrats. Leader McConnell could have put up the bill(s) to pass at any time with enough votes to overrule a Presidential veto, demonstrating that Congress is a co-equal branch of government and that the executive branch cannot take the entire government hostage whenever it so wishes.  However, he did not do so, and the shutdown continued.

In days leading up to the reopening of the government on January 25, the President offered a new proposal: he would extend DACA protections for three years – the same protections his administration revoked – if the Democrats would fund the wall. Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer rightly called this offer out as a hostage negotiation. The President was using the future of millions of hard-working, honest Americans – and their children, who, through no fault of their own, were brought illegally into America – as a bargaining chip to get funding for a wall that the majority of Americans do not want to pay for, funding he was unable to secure even when his party held control of both chambers of Congress. In the end, it was clear that Speaker Pelosi, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, congressional Democrats, and yes, a fair number of congressional Republicans wanted to find a solution that did not involve funding the wall. The President and the spineless Senate Majority Leader, however, did not, placing funding for an unwanted wall over the well-being of more than 800,000 federal employees and their families. 

I find no moral issue with a partial wall being built, but I do find issue with Trump being able to shut down the government whenever Congress does not agree with him. Time and again congressional Democrats and Republicans put proposals on the table that paired wall funding with DACA protections, and each time President Trump rejected them. If the Democrats are going to compromise on the wall – and they very well may have to in order to ensure the government remains open – they need demand in exchange concessions such as rolling back the administration’s zero-tolerance policies for asylum seekers, giving those who seek asylum public defenders to represent them in immigration courts, giving Dreamers permanent legal status, and increasing the number of judges who oversee the nation’s backlogged immigration court system (over 700,000 cases have yet to be decided, and that number exceeds what judges can handle). 

Speaker Pelosi rightfully said that a full-on immigration policy debate can be only held when the government is fully funded, and she, along with the broader Democratic leadership, knows that we will only come to an equitable agreement on how to end the humanitarian immigration crisis when it is comprehensive. 

And in the end, perhaps the President came to understand that. His poll numbers were tanking, and he wasn’t any closer to getting funding for a wall over a month in than he had been when the shutdown started. The cracks began to show when the President yielded to Speaker Pelosi’s decision to postpone the State of the Union address until after the shutdown had ended and when he began proposing the half-baked compromise of temporary DACA protections. Reports are coming out of the administration saying that White House staffers felt as though the past month was wasted, and it’s clear that the President’s shutdown has done him zero favors. When LaGuardia had to be shut down last Friday, the President knew continuing down this path could only end in disaster.

However, the real victims of the shutdown are the federal employees and contractors – the former will receive back pay, a small consolation for the past month’s maelstrom, but the latter lost an entire month’s salary that they will never get back, all for a Presidential power trip. Now, right now, the government is funded for only two more weeks, and if a deal is not reached before then, we may very well enter a shutdown once again. I’m admittedly thankful the President came to his senses in the end, and I wish both parties success in the forthcoming negotiations. Until then, however, Speaker Pelosi holds all the cards.