Opinion: Trump's shutdown takes anti-government sentiment to new extremes

The continuing government shutdown is a dangerous disgrace that is perplexing to observe, particularly for people outside the US. But as in many other instances, Donald Trump is only exacerbating a festering problem.
Michael Knigge (Washington)
Michael Knigge (Washington)

The commandant of the United States Coast Guard took to Twitter to say he finds it "unacceptable" that his organization "must rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life." The Coast Guard, charged with protecting the vast US coastline, is the only military branch under the Department of Homeland Security and is thus directly impacted by the shutdown. The Coast Guard has continued its crucial tasks until now but has not been able to pay its more than 40,000 active duty members.

The head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is in charge of food safety inspections and the approval of new drugs, has described the partial government shutdown as the "biggest operational crisis" his agency has faced. After initially ending food checks due to the lack of funding, the agency has recently called back some employees to restart inspections of high-risk foods. The employees, whether forced to stay at home or called back in to keep the US food supply as safe as possible, are working without pay.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which oversees airport security, acknowledged last weekend that "many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations." While the TSA was officially shuttered by the shutdown, some 50,000 of its airport security employees are considered "essential" and have been called in to work without pay. But since TSA employees are among the lowest paid government workers, many simply do not have the financial means to work without wages and have begun to look for other jobs instead. 

Shutdown morphing into national security risk

These three examples, and there are many more, show that the longest government shutdown in US history is now turning into a national security threat. That is not to criticize the work of the tens of thousands of government workers who continue to report for duty even without the faintest prospect of when they will be paid again.

Michael Knigge is DW's US correspondent

To the contrary, their sense of loyalty and commitment to do everything they can to keep their fellow citizens safe and the country running must be applauded. But it is obvious that operating with minimal unpaid staff and without a budget for an extending period of time is bound to increase the risks of mishaps or errors in critical government functions.

The shutdown has also become an international disgrace. Just like the US gun violence epidemic, the country's crippling government shutdown has the world watching with the kind of cringing fascination with which one observes a slow-moving train wreck.

How come the world's most powerful country is doing this to itself over a border wall? Why is the US hurting its 800,000 government employees impacted directly, millions impacted indirectly and the nation's economy and security?

Trump not alone to blame

The obvious answer is Donald Trump — and it would not be wrong. He boasted ahead of the shutdown about being proud to trigger the shuttering of the federal government if that is what it takes to force Democrats to fund his campaign promise to build a wall along the US border with Mexico. And he also has made abundantly clear during this affair that he could not care less about the plight of the impacted government workers.

Now live
03:38 mins.
DW News | 20.01.2019

Two years of presidential power: Trump’s first halftime

Read more: Counting the cost of the US government shutdown

It is important, however, to understand the broader context in which such a move could even become palpable to the Republican lawmakers that back and thus enable it. Republicans have long harbored the sentiment that the federal government is too large, too costly, too inefficient and too intrusive. In his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon, said that "in this present crisis, the government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem."

Related Subjects

Given the Republican Party's long-held hostility toward government, it is hardly surprising that Trump has taken this sentiment to new extremes. His shutdown is the longest in US history and the reason for it one of the most nonsensical rationales for causing tremendous damage to the country.

Rock bottom does not exist

But it is not Trump alone who is pushing the shutdown. The president's own anti-government impulses have been boosted recently by the arrival of his new acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. In his previous role, the former Tea Party lawmaker has done his best to neuter the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And in his new job, Mulvaney, an avid advocate of shrinking the size of the federal government, is reportedly one of the key backers of Trump's no-compromise stance on the shutdown. Other key supporters are the hard-line Freedom Caucus lawmakers in Congress. 

Against this backdrop, and the increasingly personal nature of Trump's back-and-forth with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a way out of this unprecedented crisis seems hard to come by. However, that does not mean we have finally reached rock bottom in the relationship between Trump and the Democrats. With this president, there simply is no rock bottom.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

Sundown shutdown

As midnight approaches on September 30 of each year, it's go time for Congress: approve a budget or shut down government operations. Originally, Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution required lawmakers to approve the budget. Honing it further in 1870, the Antideficiency Act targeted agencies that spent money without asking. But meeting deadlines was a chronic problem. That is, until the 1980s.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

No money, no pay, no work

At the behest of President Jimmy Carter, the US attorney general revisited the Antideficiency Act in 1980 to answer the question: "Without a budget, are government employees required to work?" According to Benjamin Civiletti's legal opinion, no money meant no work. Carter's presidency saw only small shutdowns, but the new interpretation of the law turned shutdowns into a negotiating tactic.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

Ronald Reagan and the first shutdown

The first real shutdown — over 240,000 workers furloughed, more than $80 million (€65 million) down the drain — occurred in November 1981. Still in his early days, President Ronald Reagan refused to sign a budget without billions in tax cuts. The Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House found a solution by the next day. This happened seven more times by his last year in 1989.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

Bill Clinton and the rise of the partisan shutdown

Budget impasses were largely drama-free until 1995, when President Bill Clinton faced off against Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (pictured left). The Republican-led Congress wanted a balanced budget within seven years, higher Medicare premiums and rollbacks on environment regulations. It took 27 days in total to strike a deal. The cost: at least $1 billion.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

A game for Congress, a headache for the agencies

Many departments such as the military, national security and any deemed essential to the protection of life continue working during shutdowns. But agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must cease operations. This results in delays on tax decisions, food inspection and disease research among other problems.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

Barack Obama and Congress on Cruz-control

The next major shutdown came in 2013 under President Barack Obama. His Affordable Health Care Act — or Obamacare — faced stark opposition from conservative House Republicans. Led by Senator Ted Cruz, the group pushed for drastic curbs on the health care act in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The 18-day shutdown resulted in the furlough of some 850,000 workers. The cost: $24 billion.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

A shutdown lasting years?

The latest shutdown, which lasted 35 days, was the longest in history. Hundreds of federal workers went without paychecks. Despite the disruption, President Donald Trump refused to budge on his insistence that funding for the Mexico border wall be included in the budget. In fact, the president had said he was prepared for the impasse to go on for years — before he gave in and reopened government.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

Cost of playing politics

The prohibitive cost of shutting down some government operations has not tamed the trend. Washington loses millions not just in revenue, but also in back pay, even though furloughed employees stay at home. So, time lost, work lost — and money lost. According to ratings agency Standard and Poor's, the current rate for a shutdown will cost the US roughly $6 billion per week.

US government shutdowns: A chronology

Shutdowns contributing to distrust?

But the biggest loser is not the economy, or the party that makes the most concessions. Arguably, it's the government itself. According to a Gallup poll in the aftermath of the 2013 shutdown, public dissatisfaction with the government in general rose to 33 percent. The previous all-time high regarding political dysfunction was 26 percent during the Watergate scandal.