As long as the standoff over funding for a border wall persists between President Donald Trump and his Democratic opposition in the House of Representatives, with its new Democratic majority, there will be less government-related news to report. For instance, this issue of The Waterways Journal won’t carry our usual Barge Grain Movements report from the Department of Agriculture, since that is one area affected by the government shutdown.
Direct impacts to waterways-related sectors would seem to be minimal so far, however, since the late 2018 “minibus” funded the Corps of Engineers through September, as the WJ’s Jim Myers reports. There have been staff shortages at the Federal Maritime Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency. Some logistics publications are worried that cargo movements will be slowed by shortages at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency.
As this is going to press, both sides are making gestures to seem conciliatory. Democratic leaders have proposed a plan for funding six federal agencies through September and Homeland Security through February while the two sides negotiate, with Homeland Security’s funding kept at the same level. Trump has invited Democratic leaders in Congress to sit down. But the truth is that neither side has much incentive to really cooperate at this stage.
The Democrats’ funding proposal contains no border-wall concessions that Trump has made a line in the sand. When Trump seemed for a moment to waver on the idea of allowing the shutdown to occur unless and until he got his border wall, he was immediately savaged by commentators and politicians among his base. They managed to convince this president who often famously rejects advice that “caving” on the wall would be equivalent to George H.W. Bush breaking his “read my lips—no new taxes” pledge.
In 1995-6, President Bill Clinton was able to exploit the 21-day government shutdown over budget priority disputes to his advantage, denting the prestige of that era’s Republican brand-new congressional majority. Since Trump and the Republicans “own” the shutdown this time around, Democrats are convinced that they have everything to gain by allowing it to continue—and to lengthen.
Today’s situation, though, is not the same as it was in 1996. For one thing, this shutdown is only partial. It does not affect military spending, veterans’ benefits, Social Security, Medicare, the post office or passport processing. Trump intervened to make sure the Coast Guard got paid, at least for December. The notion that the shutdown will threaten “essential” services has already been taken off the table, depending on your idea of which government functions are “essential.” (Insert your own IRS joke here.) The fact that this is a partial shutdown means it could go on longer.
For better or worse, shutdowns are not the crisis they were once perceived to be. In the age of social-media hysteria about everything, the populace could be suffering from “shutdown fatigue.” There have been 21 federal shutdowns since 1976. Most lasted only a few days as a result of failure to pass a budget deal. Nevertheless, as NBC News points out, shutdowns have gone from being an urgent crisis to being normalized.
It’s a situation that is tailor-made to show all the disadvantages of government-by-social-media, in which every move is made in real time and in front of everyone. Yesteryear’s “smoke-filled rooms,” once derided as the very symbol of corrupt backroom deals, seem like healthy time-out spaces by comparison.