Republicans used to shut down the government in the name of fiscal restraint. Now they’re digging in for the sake of a boondoggle. This Trump-era shutdown could well become the longest ever, eclipsing the Clinton-era 26-day standoff over Medicare spending, and the Obama-era 16-day standoff over Obamacare. GOP tactics in the past may have been misguided, but at least the party was in theory fighting on behalf of its signature goal: reducing the size of the federal government.
This time, there is no talk of budget cuts, recisions, reform, or sequestration. After years of warning about the debt and the deficit, the alleged budget hawks have fallen silent. Even for the ideological performance artists in the Freedom Caucus, this shutdown is all about actually increasing spending for, of all things, the Wall, a Stone Age technology to deal with an Internet Age noncrisis.
The wall is a proposed boondoggle to rival Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere. It would go head-to-head with Trump University as a monument to wasteful spending. It would also serve as a monument to the transformation of Republican ideology. For Republicans, concern over excessive government spending is so last president.
Recent polls suggest that most Americans oppose the border wall, but the Republican base remains fixated on it, and its support actually seems to harden when it’s confronted with growing evidence of the scheme’s impracticality. These diehards don’t even seem to care that the shutdown puts the lie to Trump’s oft-repeated campaign promise that Mexico would pay for the dumb thing.
Nor do Republicans seem unduly concerned about the 800,000 federal employees who have been affected by the shutdown, or even by the fact that members of the Coast Guard may go without paychecks. In the new Trumpian reality, the wall is worth it. Costly, crude, dumb, and obsolete, it is now central to the GOP agenda.
At this point, it’s worth remembering that back in 2011, Republicans were so concerned about raising the debt limit that they signed on to a measure imposing $1 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. The cuts—hitting both military and domestic spending—were designed to be so draconian that they would force a bipartisan budget deal to avert the pain of a budgetary bloodbath. But the deal fell victim to political dysfunction and partisan obstructionism, and the cuts largely went into effect in 2013.
As recently as last March, some old-guard Republicans still claimed to care about the exploding cost of government. Hard on the heels of a massive tax cut, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending plan that included big increases in both military and domestic spending. Republican Senator Bob Corker urged Trump to veto the measure, tweeting: “Please do, Mr. President. I am just down the street and will bring you a pen. The spending levels without any offsets are grotesque, throwing all of our children under the bus. Totally irresponsible.”
Despite some grumbling, Trump didn’t listen: He signed the bill, which, together with the tax cut, caused the annual federal-budget deficit to spike to nearly a trillion dollars. Republicans didn’t even have the excuse of a sluggish economy in need of a little juice; it was strong and growing. “Rarely have deficits risen when the economy is booming,” the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget noted. “And never in modern U.S. history have deficits been so high outside of a war or recession (or their aftermath).”
Chagrined by their own fiscal recklessness, congressional Republicans scheduled a show vote on a Balanced Budget Amendment. The move was derided by the conservative commentator Barbara Boland, who wrote that enacting “gargantuan spending of this size and then claiming to support a balanced budget amendment is like gorging on a sumptuous feast while insisting that you want a svelte physique.”
The attempt to cover up their abandonment of fiscal prudence, she wrote, “only proves there is no low to which the GOP will not stoop as it continues to insult the intelligence of its voter base.”
This wall-induced shutdown is the greatest insult yet. Republicans in Congress must know that Trump’s campaign pledge will do nothing to address immigrants who overstay their visas, drug trafficking, asylum seekers, or the overall question of immigration reform. Leaving aside the ugly symbolism of the United States building a massive border wall, it would require the promiscuous use of eminent domain to seize private property, trigger an environmental nightmare, and cut off vast swaths of territory from access to natural assets such as the Rio Grande. Could it be that even private-property rights have gone the way of spending cuts and fiscal restraint? If Ann Coulter wants a wall, she must get her wall.
It seems fitting that Speaker Paul Ryan is leaving the stage at this juncture in this way. According to The Washington Post, “Ryan’s last moment on the House floor came Saturday evening when he gaveled the empty chamber shut, the last legislative session of 2018 going out with a whimper.” Picture this man who supposedly devoted his entire career to deficit reduction, just going through the motions in the service of a profligate mania. He’s not pretending anymore. Neither is the party.