I. A Brief Introduction
Sometimes, especially since I am currently living in Hyderabad, it is easy to glance across the ocean and laugh at the ironic, disastrous mess that is my country, the United States of America. It’s easy to watch late night comedy clips of my president being ridiculed and to scan his Twitter feed from time to time and shake my head. But then I get to close the tabs on my computer and forget, at least for a while, that any of it is actually real.
My government recently emerged from the longest shutdown of its complicated little history. And lately, it’s become hard for me to ignore the cries from across the ocean. I’ll explain the basics of the government shutdown (because it really is a strange concept), but first I want to address something about my own politics.
Yes, I am a Democrat. Yes, I am extremely biased. This is an opinion piece, after all. However, I do not want my political leaning to invalidate anything I say, so I want to be clear when I say that I think Democrats and Republicans alike have put us in the place we are in right now. No one is faultless, nor is anyone completely guilty. This is ultimately a problem that we Americans have created for ourselves. To quote The Office : “When a child gets behind the wheel of a car and runs into a tree, you don’t blame the child. He didn’t know any better. You blame the 30-year-old woman who got in the passenger seat and said, ‘Drive, kid. I trust you.’” I’ll let you figure out who’s who in that scenario.
So, why did the U.S. government shut down? And what exactly does that mean? And why do no other countries’ governments shut down? The first government shutdown in my life was in 2013. I woke up, heard from my parents that the government had shut down, and was so shocked that I didn’t know how to respond. I thought that was it, the apocalypse had arrived, the revolution had started, and we were all going to take to the streets Purge-style. In reality, it’s not nearly that exciting, and frankly, I didn’t understand the details myself before deciding to write this article. So, here it is, in the simplest way I can explain it.
II. What is a Government Shutdown and Why Does it Happen?
In the U.S., a government shutdown happens when Congress does not agree on how to appropriate funds for the next fiscal year or when the president does not approve the appropriation. The most recent shutdown was triggered by Trump demanding $5.7 billion in the budget to build his border wall. The House of Representatives, majority-Democrat after our most recent elections, refused.
So the budget didn’t pass, and the government shut down. During a shutdown, federal programs that are deemed “non-essential” close because they are not receiving any funding. Federal workers are either furloughed (sent home from work until the shutdown ends), or they continue to work without pay. Those that continue to work have essential roles, such as TSA workers, law enforcement, and border protection — roles that mostly relate to public safety. Everything else basically stops working: National Parks shut down, the Smithsonian museums close, the FDA stops doing food inspections, court cases are postponed, rent assistance is delayed… the list goes on and on.
So… How does this make sense? It seems to me that government shutdowns are an unavoidable consequence of maintaining strong checks-and-balances among government branches. When the House and the Senate cannot agree or when the President rejects their proposition, we do not have any sort of tie-breaker or third party who is supposed to step in an make the decision because that would be unfair… right?
While it was entertaining to watch the high school drama of U.S. politics play out, these personal attacks did nothing to end the shutdown faster and simply made both parties more stubborn.
The only way to end a shutdown is negotiation between the contending parties (with one exception that I’ll get to later), resulting in a budget that everyone agrees upon. But in this particular shutdown, the divide between parties deepened the fracture both in Congress and in the nation. Instead of resolving the budget issue quickly through private and mature negotiations, members of Congress and the president held steady in their positions and resorted to public humiliation, “hostage-taking,” and tit-for-tat antics. Most notable was the tension between democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and Trump. After Pelosi publicly announced that Trump would not be welcome in the House chamber to deliver the State of the Union address (a speech given annually by the president) until the shutdown was over, Trump canceled Pelosi’s trip to Brussels and Afghanistan less than an hour before her plane was set to leave.
While on the one hand it was entertaining to watch the high school drama of U.S. politics play out, these personal attacks between two of the most powerful people in our nation did nothing to end the shutdown faster and simply made both parties more stubborn. After 35 days, Trump announced that he would reopen the government with a bill that provided funding until February 15. This measure was meant to allow negotiations about the budget to continue without hundreds of thousands of federal workers having to continue working without pay or not working at all. I’ll get to an explanation of what happened after the 15th, but first I want to talk about the impact the shutdown had on Americans.
III. Who Did the Shutdown Affect?
When Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer called Trump’s tactics “hostage-taking,” he hit at a key consequence of government shutdowns: the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who went without pay for over a month. After the shutdown started on December 22, 2018, more than 800,000 federal workers stopped receiving pay. Of those, roughly 350,000 had to keep working without pay. They missed two paychecks during the 35 days. Many of these workers struggled to get by during this period and protested on Capitol Hill with signs like “Congress gets paid while we get played” and “Hungry Hostage.” TSA workers began calling in sick or even quitting, putting extra pressure on those who decided to keep working (if you experienced long flight delays in December or January, now you know why). Many families working for the United States Coast Guard had to collect groceries from food pantries, and some also stopped receiving help paying for their housing.
But federal workers weren’t the only ones impacted by the shutdown. Tens of thousands of immigration hearings were canceled because immigration judges were furloughed, national parks staff were unable to respond to emergencies, NASA was unable to fix the broken Hubble Space Telescope, tourism suffered, and Native American tribes that rely on federal funding struggled to get food and healthcare. The list goes on.
IV. Was it Worth it?
It is unclear whether or not the shutdown was worth it. After 35 days of suffering, our country had accomplished absolutely nothing. Some might argue that Pelosi and Democrats “won” the shutdown by standing their ground. But can this really be called a win when it happened at the expense of the American people? Can it be called a win when it pushed our parties further apart?
Can this really be called a win when it happened at the expense of the American people?
When Trump demanded the $5.7 billion, saying he would keep the government shut down for months or years until he got his wall, the Democratic opposition had a tough choice to make: they could succumb to his threats and let federal employees go back to work, or they could wait it out and stand behind their belief that $5.7 billion should not be spent on Trump’s vanity project. Blame started piling up on both sides, fingers were pointed, and in the end, everyone came out looking worse than they had before.
Finally, the shutdown was clearly not worth it for the president, who put himself in a tricky position that he could only get out of by conceding. He had a moment of realization that he is not always going to get what he wants with the newly democratic House of Representatives. Also, as the shutdown progressed, Trump’s approval rating among his main supporters dropped several percentage points, which is an obvious loss for him.
V. What Happens Next?
Remember when I said earlier that the only way to end the shutdown was through negotiations, with one exception? So that was kind of true.
Negotiations have been going on for a few weeks now since the shutdown ended because Congress had until the 15th to decide on a new budget. The House and the Senate just passed the new spending package that includes $1.375 billion for 55 miles of fencing along the southern border — a measure that Trump previously rejected.
Trump has agreed to sign this new package. However, he has declared a national emergency to build the wall anyway. This would have been another way out of the shutdown, but he has put off taking this action until now.
The national emergency declaration deserves its own article, and it would be too complicated for me to get into the details in this article. Basically, the president has the right to declare a national emergency, which circumvents Congress and allows the president to siphon funds from other programs to build his wall. However, this measure has draw bipartisan opposition, and Trump is already facing multiple lawsuits.
After we have more information about Trump’s intentions with the national emergency, I will get started on writing a new article.
VI. What Does All of This Mean for the United States and Why Should You Care?
If there is one thing that has been made clear to me through this whole shutdown process, it is this: Donald Trump does not care about border security. Now I know that might be confusing because it seems like he is shaping his entire platform around border security, but I would suggest you look a bit further into his motivations. What Donald Trump really cares about is building a big wall that he can tell everyone in the world about, a wall that would surely come along with altered statistics about lower crime rates in the U.S., regardless of what the actual numbers reflect. His supporters on the right buy into this message because they too do not really care about border security — they care about the imagined symbol of the wall that would protect a white America from the outside world. I could write an entire article on Trump supporters (actually, maybe I will…), but the bottom line is that the president and conservative news outlets have repeatedly lied to the majority of Trump’s base, and they have this grand, constructed image of the illegal immigrant as the source of all of their problems. Well, the illegal immigrant and the liberals.
Anyway, Trump supporters and Trump himself are by no means representative of the Republican party. This shutdown really exposed the spectrum of political ideologies in Congress and in the United States, from the ultra liberal to the ultra conservative. In the end, I think ending the shutdown was one of the most respectable steps Trump has taken while in office (though of course, he also started it). It takes courage to concede in front of the nation, even if he tried to cover up his concession. Trump is a businessman, first and foremost, but it seems like the newly Democratic Congress might — might, I said — be teaching him how to be a politician.
So why should you, whoever you might be, care about all this nonsense? I think, whether you are from the U.S. or not, it can be very easy to criticize Donald Trump and blame him as the source of America’s current political state. He really is an easy target. But if you want to actually understand the state of the United States of America, you have to look beyond our ugly face. If the child driving our national car crashes into a tree, it is not just his fault. It is ours as well. And I think that if more people come to that realization, especially people from the U.S., then we can start making change.
End note 1: All photo credits are to Olive Honan (that’s me).
End note 2: Several times in this article I used the terms “America” or “American” to refer to the United States or to U.S. Citizens. I recognize that Minerva is an international community and that America is a continent (or 2, depending on what they teach in your country), and it does not only refer to the United States. I used this terminology because it is standard when writing about the U.S., and frankly it sounds awkward to use the term “U.S. citizen”. I welcome further discussion about this in the comments section or directly to me, as long as the discussion is fruitful and open-minded.
End note 3: If anyone reading this article has a different opinion than mine about this topic or would like more information, I would love to talk about it! Please reach out to me, and I plan on writing more about U.S. politics in the future. I would also love it if students from other countries would write about the inner-workings of their countries’ politics so we can learn from each other. Thank you for reading.