Federal Employees News Digest

Q&A: What’s happening in government to cause the current partial federal shutdown?

In December, President Trump announced he would not approve spending bills needed to keep open approximately one-quarter of federal agencies and departments—unless Congress also approved funds for something he deemed essential: a massive border wall project on America’s southern frontier. As of early January, “the wall”—the simple shorthand for this vast multibillion dollar undertaking—remains unfunded, along with nine departments and many additional agencies, resulting in approximately 420,000 federal employees now working without pay or the certainty of pay. Many observers see this partial shutdown as likely to last some time. This week in FEND, Nathan Abse interviews one such expert—Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science and expert on the federal civil service at St. Louis University.

Q&A with Kenneth Warren

Do you expect this—the third shutdown in the last year or so—to drag on a long time in 2019? Or just another few days, a week—or is it too hard to guess?  

Warren: That’s easy to answer actually: you can just say, “Who knows?” (Laughs). Seriously, I expect this time the shutdown will be longer. Both sides are being, to use the vernacular, pig-headed here. But, it’s a political situation, and you need to look at exactly why that’s so. And both sides have a lot to lose by giving in, or compromising much at all with the other. This president has confided in others, as has been leaked or released by others in the press, that he feels his presidency will be seen as a failure if he does not get this wall really going. He just doesn’t seem—given his way—like he can see things all that differently than this. To him, it’s all about how he is perceived, and he does not want to be seen as a failure. Now, on the other side, there is no upside for the Democrats in Congress—now the majority in the House—to give in. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer emphatically have said they will not give in on the wall. They simply refuse to give in on Democratic votes to fund the wall. So, in short, I see the situation as a very visible, very difficult gridlock, the likes of which I have rarely seen in Washington. It could last a while.

Can you go into more detail, as to why each side might have a hard time even negotiating?

Warren: I normally see one side or both sides as likely to find some room for compromise. Well, there’s no upside, for either side here, in giving in at all. There’s no upside for the Democrats in clearing funding for the wall. They are feeling their strength, and are just now taking over in the House. When you really look at it—why would the Democrats give in? And on the other side, there’s this president, and remember he couldn’t get funding for the wall when he held both sides of Congress, so how the hell is he going to get it now? Even with this ongoing shutdown? To the contrary, we see President Trump saying even very recently he’s “proud” to shut down the government. To me, this language is childish. What he should be doing is something for this country here, this issue should not be about him or his pride. In any case, he should authorize, sign, a new appropriation, so federal employees who are doing their jobs get paid and the country gets these needed services—so programs are not shut down.

How do you see this shutdown, so far, in terms of how damaging it is?

Warren: It’s not serious—in the short term, I would say. So far, I mean. It’s about two weeks so far. But that is longer than most—which have only lasted a matter of days, as many of your readers know. Very few have gone any real length of time. Most are very, very short—a matter of hours or days. This one is now, already, one of the longest in history. That’s worth facing. And, with my interpretation of what’s going on here, and with my take on the history of shutdowns, I don’t see either side giving in at all, not soon.

Do you think this White House will get Congress to pass a bill with funding for “the wall”—which the president said means at least $5 billion (although the number changes at times)?

Warren: It’s hard to see what will happen. You are right about the number the White House wanted. It was pegged at $5 billion before Christmas—but, at some moments, seemed to move around some. In fact, leading Democrats were willing at one point to go as far as $2.5 billion, even according to the White House. I would say in my take it was up to $2.5 billion for “border security,” not the wall. It seems now to be long since back at the original amount, that the White House wants. Anyway, this is the key: The majority of Republicans are not in favor of a wall—because, as they know, walls do not work. There is no wall in history of this length that has worked at all well for this purpose. So, no long wall works for this, and yet they are built sometimes and cost an enormous amount to build and maintain. Therefore, for practical reasons, most Republicans are against the wall the president proposes. And even most Republicans who are in favor of the wall offer on weak support. Finally, in recent polls, most of those polled—whether they normally vote Democratic or Republican—are against the wall. (And this may or may not be technically right, but many in Congress claim the White House has not even spent down last year’s congressional-approved funding for border wall projects.) It’s hard to understand where the White House is coming from on this—in the sense that this president reads polls and there is a lack of public support on this project.

Is it true that within the Senate there is yet another major bottleneck to compromise or passage?  

Warren: Well, Democrats have said they will advance bills in the House, where they are now the majority, and send them to the Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said, regarding bills that might resolve the shutdown, he will not even hold votes on bills that the president doesn’t support. This suggests to me there will not be a quick end to this impasse and this shutdown. There will come an end of course, eventually—but there will not be one very soon. To be blunt, part of the impasse is that this president seems to pay quick attention only to certain talk show hosts. That’s what happened recently to cause this standoff. This president just does not march to any drummer we are familiar with.

How does it affect the political dynamic that this shutdown is just a partial shutdown—and only a minority of government agencies are closed?

Warren: Definitely, it does potentially affect the prospects for early resolution. It could harm those prospects. The regular military is funded under other bills that were already passed. In fact, most vital services across government are funded—those affecting the most people and services, I mean. The Social Security checks are going out, that’s very important, and so many other services are open for business. But let’s remember that the National Parks are not. Really, with 25 percent of the government being closed, that is a lot of the government closed. And that’s a lot of federal employees not being paid, that’s a lot of services that are not working or that are not fully on. This situation could go on a month or so, let’s say, and affected employees will get reimbursed—that just about always has happened. But this fact—that 75 percent of the government remains funded—may or may not encourage the shutdown to be permitted to continue, because so much is funded. We don’t know. We do know you really can’t continue forever like this. No workforce can go on like this for too long.

Can you summarize the state of play in this shutdown?

Warren: Sure, again, this is how I see this situation: Short shutdowns are commonplace, in recent times. Long shutdowns are not. This one is pretty unusual. Second, you can usually see an end. Like during the Obama administration and that Republican Congress, you could see that one side would give in some. People on both sides of the political aisle could rationalize what they could accomplish and where they should stop, judging by what the damage would be. They cut their losses, finally, and gave in. But this time you have some very hard-headed leaders involved, I would say, including of course this president, and they do not seem like they want to give in at all. I do not see, currently, a downside for the Democrats for not giving in. Right now, the public is blaming the White House more than anyone else on this.

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
Mike Causey Columnist
Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
Mathew B. Tully Legal Analyst

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