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Matthew Stokes: The shutdown turns a month old

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Matthew Stokes

Today, the shutdown of the federal government is in its 31st day, and there appears to be no clear end in sight.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump made an offer to Congress for three year extensions for DACA and Temporary Protected Status for immigrants facing expiration from the country, along with a few other items, in exchange for just over $5 billion in funding for a border wall.  Democrats have already rejected the measure, and so the country will remain in a stalemate. Congressional Republicans are behind the President, believing the measure to be a reasonable compromise on immigration concerns and a necessary step to reopening the federal government.

I am willing to grant the benefit of the doubt to all those Republicans, including Alabama’s GOP delegation in the House and Senate, who feel the wall is a necessity for the safety and security of all Americans.  Yet I am puzzled by the fact that a Republican-controlled House and Senate voted to fully fund the federal government without funding for the wall in December. President Trump was prepared to sign the measure until the conservative media complex – Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and others – threw blistering criticism at him and suggested he stick to his guns.  The shutdown then commenced and here we are a month later, with all of the problems the shutdown brings.

Last Friday, New York Federal Reserve President John Williams argued the shutdown could cut economic growth by a significant margin.  This is serious business, and politicians on both sides need to understand the stakes at this point. As sincere as Republicans appear to be in their desire to keep the border secure, as a political matter, I can’t help but believe they’re arguing in bad faith.

I say that because the reality is that if the border wall meant so much to congressional Republicans, they had two years to do something about it.  While the stories from south of the border are at times horrific and deserve our attention, Congress had an entire term to address the problem and did nothing.  President Trump had two years to lead on this issue, and he did not do so. Indeed, at one point Democrats offered $25 billion in funding for a wall in exchange for DACA, an offer that Trump rejected out of hand despite strong indications that the bill would pass the Senate.  

While my own sympathies lie with the GOP, given the inconsistency of the President on this issue, and his willingness to be goaded by the likes of Limbaugh and Coulter, it’s hard to blame Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer for walking away. Where they do incur blame is in their failure to bring their own proposals to the table.  Their failure to do so at this juncture is a stain on their leadership. Politics is about tradeoffs, and if they expect the GOP to give something on DACA, they should likewise be willing to give something on increased border security.

To his credit, Senator Richard Shelby has tried to navigate this morass by working towards a resolution.  Alabamians should be grateful for this leadership, but also follow his lead in recognizing that the shutdown ought to end as soon as possible.  

There are a couple of issues that are tangled up in all of this.  Most obvious is the shutdown itself. It is bad policy to use the shutdown, with all of its effects on workers, specifically, and the public, broadly, as a bargaining chip.  The wall is a policy preference, not an emergency, and the functions of the government should not be held hostage to this argument. As painful as it is to agree with Nancy Pelosi, she is right to refuse to reward this sort of behavior.  

Second is the issue of immigration at large. Many Congressman, including Alabama’s Mo Brooks, have been quick to cite tragedies, often violent, that have involved illegal immigrants. What is less clear is how many of these individual cases would have been prevented by a wall, as opposed to perhaps a tighter system of workplace enforcement.  Wall proponents often cite the problem of illegal drugs, but most of the drugs in our country enter through ports; they are not smuggled across the border. While I favor tougher enforcement at the workplace and some preference for high skilled workers, too much of the hardline on immigration is fueled by paranoia and innuendo, and not supported by fact.  That immigration hardliners never really sought to advance a wall as any sort of policy before Trump used the idea as a campaign flashpoint is likewise telling.

Look, I’m not naive. I understand that, for Republicans in Alabama, being with Trump and for his wall in popular with constituents, and that questioning Trump and his proposals amounts to political suicide. But they ought to know there are still some of us reasonable conservatives who value results over rhetoric. And it’s not just conservative sticklers.  It is easy to imagine a scenario where Trump’s popularity fades, and Republican devotion to the wall becomes an excuse for suburban voters to slowly shift to the Democrats.

The current government shutdown helps no one, and leaders in both houses of Congress should find a means of reopening, even if it means working around the White House.  Once that is done, it’s time to fix our immigration laws. Perhaps some new fencing is necessary in select areas, but the real cures will come when employers who are skirting the law are punished.   As for DACA and other similar programs, the most realistic option is a long-term path to citizenship. Deportation for those who have been living peacefully within our borders is as impractical as it is cruel.  Those are political arguments and policy goals, and Congress can give and take on each issue in order to find a workable solution.

In the meantime, we are stuck with neither side having an incentive to give in order to reopen the government.  Conservatives should find this disappointing, as the party of limited government and personal responsibility has instead chosen to allow a shutdown over an issue they chose not to address for two years, and a policy solution that almost none of them really believe to be helpful.  America deserves better.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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