The government is only partly closed, because in the fall Congress passed and the president signed five of the dozen spending bills required each year to fund federal programs. The House passed the seven remaining bills last week. But until the Senate passes and the president signs those measures into law, the government will remain partly shut down. That leaves 800,000 government employees, including court personnel, air traffic controllers, national park rangers and Internal Revenue Service staff members, working without pay or furloughed at home. And once the government reopens, the law guarantees back pay only for employees required to work during the shutdown — although lawmakers in the past have paid furloughed workers as well.
What will it take to reopen the government? Keep your eye on these three dynamics.
Democrats and Trump seem dug into their positions. House and Senate Democrats are unified in opposing funding the wall. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called it immoral and made it clear that she wants to keep the current legal ban on constructing the wall.
Meanwhile, Trump asserts there is a crisis at the border (which many dispute) — and says that the government could stay shuttered for “years” unless Democrats approve more than $5 billion to construct the wall. And if they don’t, Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency to circumvent Congress’s power of the purse — a move that even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) implied would run afoul of the Constitution.
Trump met with Democratic leaders last week, and Vice President Pence conferred with congressional staff members over the weekend. But no serious negotiations are underway.
That’s not surprising. In an era of ideologically polarized and highly competitive parties, it’s hard to find an ideological sweet spot that would anchor a deal, especially when party activists pressure each side not to fold.
Instead, the parties wage a blame game: Each blames the other for unpopular outcomes, while trying to dodge blame themselves. In the past — such as government shutdowns in the winter of 1995-1996, the fall of 2013 and the winter of 2018 — the parties have typically reached a deal to reopen the government only when one party is clearly losing the blame game and gives up. In this climate, “getting to yes” doesn’t involve compromise; it’s about how high each party thinks the political costs will be to the party’s reputation if it continues to say no to a deal, and whether that’s higher than the cost of saying yes.
To avoid blame, the parties wage a messaging battle. Politicians win messaging wars not by proposing “better” policy but by securing broader public support for their side. Decades ago, political scientist E.E. Schattschneider put it best: “Watch the crowd, because the crowd plays the decisive role.”
The messaging war is important, because the battle’s outcome shapes each party’s power at the bargaining table. If you think you are on the right side of public opinion on an issue, you have more power in setting the deal’s terms — and thus feel less pressure to make concessions.
Consider the 2013 government shutdown. Republicans refused to pass bills to fund the government unless Democrats voted to defund the Affordable Care Act. But observers generally called the war in favor of the Democrats because the public eventually blamed Republicans for the stalemate. Democrats essentially got what they wanted all along: a spending bill that funded Obamacare and split the difference with Republicans over suspending the nation’s debt limit. In contrast, the February 2018 shutdown over Democrats’ demands on behalf of “dreamers” (beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) lasted only a few days; Democrats quickly acknowledged that public opinion was against them.
3. Keep your eyes on the Senate, too
The Democratic House passed six uncontroversial, bipartisan spending bills to fund the shuttered departments and agencies through the end of the fiscal year in September. Trump has vowed to veto them and is pushing the Republican Senate to hold them hostage until Democrats agree to fund the border wall in the seventh spending bill, which covers the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, Democrats passed a stopgap bill to fund homeland security (but not Trump’s border wall) for just a few weeks, kicking a decision on the wall into February.
But keep your eyes on the Senate, where we can already see Republicans fracturing over whether to keep supporting Trump’s demand to fund a wall. As local and national media spotlight the shutdown’s growing consequences, more and more Republicans will surely pressure Trump to reopen the government — especially GOP senators who must run in competitive states, possibly joined by retiring senators. The public will begin to hear stories of government workers struggling to make ends meet during the shutdown, especially if the government remains closed when their next paychecks are due on Jan. 11. The public will also soon begin to complain about slow lines at airports, delays in receiving tax refunds, unstaffed and unsafe national parks, cuts to food stamp benefits, and more. They may well blame Republicans, especially because the president and the border wall are both unpopular.
That’s what happened during the 2013 shutdown: Senate Republicans were more electorally sensitive to a damaged party brand name than were their House colleagues, whose immovability was supported by their solidly red districts. While Republicans controlled the House, they generally believed that their districts supported them. When devastating polls undermined House GOP resolve, members finally accepted the Senate-crafted deal.
So what’s different this time? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is missing from view. He vowed to bring a deal to a Senate vote only if Trump will sign it — and told the White House to negotiate with the Democrats. McConnell — who is up for reelection in 2020 — seems to fear splitting with Trump lest it hurt him with GOP voters back home. But as the Senate GOP caucus fractures, McConnell’s colleagues will pressure him to get back in the game. They expect the majority leader to protect the brand name — even if eventually it requires breaking with the president.
Democrats don’t seem in a hurry to negotiate, probably betting that the public will blame Republicans for the shutdown. If that comes true, expect Democrats to refuse to concede an inch on the border wall, although some fuzzy language to spend more on border security could allow Trump to claim victory regardless of the details of a deal.