The White House is Burning

For those of you who want a refreshing break from Brexit chaos, turn your eyes across the pond to the US government shutdown, lasting a whopping 35 days from December 22nd to January 25th, the longest government shutdown in US history. The government shutdown happened because Congress and President Trump could not agree on an appropriations bill to fund the federal government for the 2019 fiscal year. Or more specifically, Trump announced that he would not sign any appropriations bill, including the one which passed the Republican-controlled Senate and looked like it would be approved by the then-Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which did not fund the construction of his Big, Beautiful, Border Wall. The lengthy shutdown occurred as both sides of the aisle played chicken, refusing each other’s proposals, until Trump announced on January 25th that he would endorse a measure to temporarily reopen the government for three weeks until February 15th. A glorified temper tantrum by the US president led to nine executive departments, with around 800,000 employees, being shut down. The shutdown cost the American economy an estimated $11 billion and another shutdown lurks on the horizon.

At the time of writing this article – February 6th for full transparency – it is unclear whether a border security compromise will be reached. Negotiations for a bipartisan agreement to keep the government funded are in progress with an unofficial end-of-week deadline. It is unclear what the outcome will be. My own cynicism about American politics in general, about Republicans’ spinelessness, and about the potential for constructive compromise doubts that a deal can be reached by the negotiating committee. Although there are glimmers of hope. Negotiators have signaled that the talks are progressing and CNN reported today about a positive shift in tone. However, there are tremendous disagreements about border security to overcome and, it’s important to note, they are about more than just the wall itself. Even if negotiators reach a compromise, it’s unclear – especially to those closest to Trump – what the President would even accept. His Tuesday State of the Union address gave no indication.

Trump has insinuated that if compromise falls through he is not afraid to declare a national emergency and use military funding to build the wall, with or without Congress. This is a tremendously dangerous precedent and it should be shocking to even the most desensitized, Trump-hating consumer of political news. It would undermine the US Constitution and throw separation of powers to the wind. On the bright side, it probably wouldn’t work. It would only take the support of four Senate Republicans (in addition to Senate Democrats, and the Democratic-controlled House) to pass a Resolution of Disapproval which would override the decision. Trump could veto this but then the Senate could override again, resulting in a game of tug-of-war which would fracture the Republican party and ensure that no immediate construction occurred before the 2020 election.

So what? What, if any, lesson can we, a left-wing paper based in Edinburgh, draw from the dysfunction thousands of miles away? The US government shutdown, although technically over, is an important reminder of the ways that the rise of the right is tearing at the seams of the US Constitution and democracy more broadly. The impasse in DC is testing every possible political avenue of compromise, checks and balances and oversight. Brexit is doing the same.

Part of me wants to deliver a hopeful message and to call for a regeneration of our political system beyond partisanship, just as the Founding Fathers originally intended! But frankly that seems unrealistic. It’s hard to trust in compromise when our political fights are so closely aligned to our morals and to the very core of our belief systems. Border security negotiations are about more than just reopening the government or working across party lines. Migrants’ lives and livelihoods are on the line, ICE is deporting people as you read this, and Trump’s narrative on the border wall is fundamentally racist. Walls don’t work and neither do borders. Compromise is nice in the abstract, but much messier in practice. Further, enthusiastic hopes of regeneration after the midterm elections seem tempered. The influx of fresh, new Democrats in the House is not yet enough to alter the tornado-like destruction of the Trump administration. Hard work lies ahead but so does possibility. The government shutdown signals the potential to regenerate, which can be defined as growing something new after loss or damage. Not growing a new tail, but envisioning a better-functioning political system. A reconceptualized relationship between governors and the governed that doesn’t use federal workers as voiceless pawns for political gain. Faith in the tools of democracy to challenge injustice and selfish privilege (embodied in Donald J. Trump) at every turn and to do so in creative, adaptable, and radical ways that Thomas Jefferson surely could not have envisioned. And a regenerated understanding that imperfect governments cannot do it all; so the rest of us must pitch in too.

UPDATE 15/02/19: the US government is not shutdown! Against my best predictions, Democrats and Republicans have agreed on a compromise funding bill, with $1.375 billion towards ‘securing’ the southern border with Mexico. Trump has declared that he will sign this bill and keep the government open; but, classic Trump, he will not be upstaged. He has also explicitly expressed his plan to declare a national emergency in order to secure additional funds. Yikes.


*Illustration by Juliet Richards*

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