Last week, President Donald Trump doubled down on part of one of his signature campaign promises: the wall.
At a rally in Phoenix, he said, “If we have to close down our government, we’re building that wall. … One way or the other, we’re going to get that wall.” For many reasons, this is a reckless statement that raised critical questions about how Congress will respond and how Congress will navigate the many hurdles it has before it in the jam-packed month of September.
At Taxpayers for Common Sense, we have long been critical of the idea of additional construction at the southern border for a wide range of reasons, starting with cost. But I will leave those arguments aside for today and focus on the context in which Trump made his statement and why it is so problematic.
Let’s quickly look at what the month ahead holds. Even before Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and so many nearby areas, Congress had a full agenda for September, including completing fiscal year 2018 appropriations (or punting and passing yet another continuing resolution); addressing the looming debt ceiling; reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program; reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. All of these things must be done before Sept. 30 to avoid dramatic consequences ranging from a government shutdown to damaging our creditworthiness as a nation. Add to this list, consideration of an emergency spending bill to address the needs of the communities in Texas and Louisiana suffering from the Harvey-related floods.
Now I want to turn back to Trump’s statement. To be crystal clear, what the president’s statement means is that he would hold up all other appropriations to all other agencies if Congress does not include money for the wall in this set of bills. If he were sent appropriations bills drafted and passed by a Congress controlled by his own party that did not include his pet priority, he would consider vetoing that bill rather than going back to Congress and allowing for an open and orderly debate on the wall.
A government shutdown accomplishes nothing. It furloughs tens of thousands of workers, costs the taxpayers $80 million dollars per day (or more), and hurts businesses in the many communities around the country where federal employees are located. We have all seen this movie before. This year the consequences could be compounded by the timing of the need to raise or suspend the debt ceiling.
To be fair, this Congress has so many internal disagreements (both within and between parties) that open and orderly debates have not been the primary way of doing business, and Trump has not had a great deal of luck passing his legislative priorities to date. So his announcement of legislative hostage-taking may seem like a good tactical move.
But as they are so fond of reminding us, Congress has the power of the purse. The appropriations process is designed to allow for negotiation between the executive and legislative branches. It is not helped along by threats to take actions that would only hurt taxpayers. As a country, we have become accustomed to a dysfunctional appropriations process, so the cynic in me thinks it is absurd to continue to complain about the inability of Congress to fulfill its most explicit constitutional duty. But if we don’t insist that Congress do better, it certainly never will.
So to Congress I ask – please figure out a way to work together, overcome differences and stop causing the problems caused by the current state of the appropriations process. And to Trump, don’t make threats that hurt the taxpayers just to increase your chances to make good on political rhetoric.