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Sizing up the shutdown

Last Friday, Democrat and Republican members of Congress failed to reach an agreement on congressional budgetary spending, resulting in a government shutdown on the one year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. Although this isn’t the first time federal employees have found themselves furloughed as politicians locked horns in Washington D.C., this current funding bumble presents some unique circumstances that are worth considering.

The crux of the partisan disagreement that has prevented a new budget from being signed stems from the protections, or lack thereof, offered to immigrants brought into the United States as children who qualify for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program. Democratic congressional leaders and the Trump administration have been clashing on the issue of immigration—especially the status of the DACA recipients—since the president took office. In an effort to avoid adding this provision, Republicans in the House of Representatives passed a bill on Thursday to fund the government for four weeks and renew the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), forcing Democrats into a decision between two important and necessary programs. CHIP has long been a part of bipartisan social safety net initiatives and is now re-emerging in the House chambers after the Republican-controlled Congress failed to reauthorize the program. Nonetheless, Democratic members remained steadfast in their demand for a DACA renewal, leading to the current last-minute scrambling and deal-brokering going on at the Capitol.

While our last experience with a shutdown was a mere five years ago, there are numerous elements that have made this one particularly contentious. In the months leading up his election, Trump offered a host of campaign promises that were vital to his success, the most notable being the ones that centered on a contempt for immigrants. Trump has also been politically volatile throughout his first year, frequently changing his mind on issues important to his constituencies and struggling to communicate with his party in the House and Senate. Despite having succeeded in repealing the crucial mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act and passing a conservative tax bill, many Republicans still question the president’s political consistency and express concern over consistent administration infighting. All of this has made for a especially unpredictable congressional session. In addition, efforts to implement his key initiatives, like fortifying the border wall and restricting immigration, have contributed to a deeply vexing political gridlock. Democratic members of Congress have finally displayed a backbone and are now pushing back with all their might on a highly publicized issue while Republican members accuse them of having chosen to hold interests of undocumented residents over native-born Americans. With a concerning uptick in nativist rhetoric and white supremacist conceptions of citizenship since the Trump campaign, it’s no surprise that issues of immigration have become symbolic and emotional ideological battlegrounds. 

While partisan politics weren’t birthed in the Trump administration, this shutdown represents a type of bitterness and frustration that feels particularly concentrated. To see essential programs and vulnerable groups used as bargaining chips makes the usual tug of war seem particularly cruel and alarming. In an ideal world, Congress would be able to strike a different tone than the obstructionist tendencies and weak-willed acquiescence that is so often on display on C-SPAN. However, with the current high stakes battles playing out, we seem troublingly far from that dream. As of now, we have reached an embarrassing and frustrating halt that leaves federal employees and essential components of the government in limbo. One can only hope that as the sun rises on a new week, that it can also bring about a new sense of duty and humanity in the representatives on the Hill. 


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