The chances that the Department of Homeland Security shuts down at the beginning of March increase each day. Money for the department has gotten tied up in a spat in Congress over immigration. Republicans want Congress to pass legislation that would fund DHS but also block President Obama's plan to delay deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants. Democrats want a clean bill.

In this case, DHS has become the ultimate Washington contrivance, almost all symbolism and almost no substance.

Shutting down DHS sounds ominous, but it would accomplish nobody's goals. If the department does shutter, most of the country's Coast Guard officers and Border Patrol agents will keep going to work. The DHS office that would be responsible for processing the applications from undocumented immigrants, which is called Citizenship and Immigration Services, would also stay open. The office collects fees from people applying for citizenship and immigration papers, which it uses to pay its staff, so it doesn't depend on regularly receiving new money from Congress.

As this chart shows, only about 14 percent of the department's employees would be furloughed under a shutdown, since most are considered vital and are exempt from furloughs.


 

The background to all this, you see is that, after the 2014 midterm election, Obama announced he would allow undocumented immigrants to apply to have their deportations delayed for three years if they were the parents of children living in the country legally. The announcement enraged Republicans in Congress. They have refused to extend funding for the Department of Homeland Security beyond the end of this month, when they set aside money for the rest of the federal government through the fall.

Meanwhile, Democrats are accusing Republicans of gambling with national security in order to advance toward their political goals on immigration policy.

"In January, all the world was alarmed at what happened in Paris, and everyone was concerned about homeland security — in the country and, really, throughout the world," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House minority leader, referring to the deadly terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. "You would think Paris would have given them some additional motivation to pass a clean Homeland Security bill, but not so."

It all doesn't make much sense. If the department shuts down, it's not as though all of the country's ports and border crossings will close and you'll be able to walk onto an airliner without going through a metal detector. The vast majority of Homeland Security's employees are Border Patrol agents and Coast Guard officers whose jobs are legally defined as essential to preserving life and protecting property.

As an old report from the Congressional Research Service notes, when the department shut down along with the rest of the government in 2013, more than 85 percent of Homeland Security's employees kept working.

For their part, Republicans blame the department's mess on Democrats. The House has passed a bill to extend funding, they point out, which hasn't come to a vote in the Senate. Democrats have filibustered the legislation, because it would prevent the administration from accepting applications from undocumented parents for a reprieve.

The charge of obstructionism would carry more weight, however, if Republicans in the House hadn't themselves prevented a vote on a major immigration bill two years ago. That bill passed the Senate by a wide margin after countless hours of work on the part of staffers to reach a compromise that everyone could agree to -- everyone, that is, except many Republicans in the House.

It's happened several times during the Obama administration: Republicans' initial refusal to compromise on an issue has not prevented the Obama administration from adopting more liberal policies. Had Republicans allowed that bill to come to a vote, it might well have passed, and exactly zero Homeland Security employees would be worrying about not getting a paycheck next month.

For the department's officers and staff, after all, a lapse in funding would be a major headache at an agency already confronting problems of morale and calls for its abolition. For that reason, it's unfortunate that Homeland Security's funding has been endangered by parliamentary maneuvering that doesn't even have a clearly discernible goal.