The partial federal government shutdown is in its 18th day. According to estimates from the office of U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, some 420,000 federal employees are working without pay; these include 41,000 federal law enforcement and correctional officers. Some 53,000 Transportation Safety Administration employees are working without pay, as are 54,000 Customs and Border Protection agents and officers. Roughly 380,000 federal employees have been furloughed. President Donald Trump is slated to address the nation on border security and related issues tonight at 9.
Is there a more depressing phrase than this in political parlance: “Both sides are playing to their base”?
It means that no one is willing to compromise — to compromise would be to cave, and who wants to be seen as caving?
That’s the state of play regarding the government shutdown right now. President Trump wants Congress to provide more than $5 billion to help build a southern border wall, which he promised to his supporters in 2016. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi calls any such wall “an immorality,” and says her caucus won’t give a dime toward it (no matter if it’s concrete or steel).
As conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg put it perfectly in an op-ed published in the Dec. 30 Sunday LNP, the battle is really being waged over symbolism. And one “of the problems with symbolic politics is that it’s hard to compromise, because symbolism enlists notions of honor and identity that leave little room for haggling.”
This is both true and unfortunate. Because this battle over symbolism has real-life consequences.
Our national parks remain open, for now, though visitors have reported overflowing trash receptacles and toilets. The scandal-beset former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had this suggestion for park visitors: “Grab a trash bag and take some trash out with you,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “In order to keep them open, everybody has to pitch in.”
People on social media invited Zinke to go first — “You lead the way, Mr. Zinke,” one Twitter user quipped. But Zinke had a point: Those parks belong to all of us; at the very least, we should take home any trash we generate (same goes when we’re at any beach, federally owned or not).
National Geographic magazine warned Monday that the trash left accumulating in the national parks could be consumed by animals weaned off from human food by the park service. And that visitors walking off-trail could be causing damage it may take years to reverse.
Unlike the national parks, the Smithsonian museums are closed, meaning that countless school trips to the National Air and Space Museum are now on hold. The Liberty Bell Center and Independence Hall in Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park are also, sadly, closed.
More worryingly for those who rely on tax refunds to pay off bills, some 52,000 IRS employees — about 65 percent of the IRS workforce, according to the AP — have been furloughed.
Russell Vought, acting director of the White House budget office, told reporters Monday that “refunds will go out as normal.” We hope this is the case, but this seems like a hard slog, even if the IRS recalls some furloughed workers, as the AP reports it might.
And the AP reported Monday that small business owners "are increasingly feeling the impact of the partial government shutdown." The Small Business Administration isn't processing certifications or loan applications. Because small businesses are essential to the Lancaster County economy, this merits concern.
The implications for this county's farmers are also worrying, especially as they face an array of other challenges, from tariffs to a falling demand for dairy products.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that because of “a lapse in federal funding,” it needs to delay the release of important crop reports.
“The reports detail the size of the 2018 harvests of corn, soybean, wheat and other crops and give an early estimate for what farmers will plant in the upcoming season,” the AP explained. “Depending on the estimates, the price of the commodities can rise or fall as they show the current supply and forecast how many acres will be devoted to different crops in the coming months.”
That’s not the only bad news for farmers. As Reuters reported, the shutdown “has blocked assistance for many farmers, who at this time of year apply for federal loans as they pay bills due from the previous year and begin budgeting for next season’s planting. It is also affecting aid payments promised to allay the effects of the trade war.”
Bottom line: Before any more harm is done, someone needs to repair our broken government. We need more grown-ups in Washington — elected officials who are willing to put the good of the country before political calculation.
Congressman Lloyd Smucker tweeted this Dec. 29: “House Republicans, along with President Trump, are committed to keeping America safe. The President has been clear: securing our border — which includes obtaining sufficient funding for the border wall — is a non-negotiable priority.”
The word “nonnegotiable” isn’t helpful. Smucker, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, and a lawmaker who had a reputation for working across the aisle when he was in the Pennsylvania Senate, should be encouraging compromise for the sake of his constituents.
Former White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Los Angeles Times recently that the notion of a solid border wall had been abandoned “early on in the (Trump) administration.”
“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly said — it would be a physical barrier in some places, but technological improvements “across the board.”
So talk about that. Negotiate about that. Work for substantive and comprehensive immigration reform, which both Democrats and Republicans agree is necessary. But stop haggling over the symbolism of the battle now being waged.
“In a fight over bread, you can agree on half a loaf, because half is better than nothing,” Jonah Goldberg observed. “But with symbols, it’s difficult to escape zero-sum thinking.”
Only one side wins in a zero-sum game. But the American economy isn’t a game. And ours is not a winner-takes-all nation.