Why There Won’t Be a Government Shutdown, Probably

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump is now threatening a government shutdown unless he gets funding for his border wall plus a wide array of other immigration changes:

He’s not going to get what he wants on immigration this fall. And while you never know with Trump, expect him to fold on the shutdown as well.

On the policy, it’s pretty simple: Trump doesn’t have the votes for a sweeping overhaul that would slash legal immigration. Both chambers of Congress have already voted on his proposals this year, and shot them down decisively. Nor does he have the votes for the border wall on its own. It’s true that presidents can bargain to win enactment of measures that otherwise wouldn’t pass, but Trump doesn’t appear to have any sense of how to do that. Indeed, Democrats have signaled that they might be willing to accept money for the border wall in return for restoring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that lets most illegal immigrants stay if they were brought into the country as children, or perhaps other Democratic preferences on immigration, but Trump instead keeps adding to the list of what he wants.

He can demand an unpopular sweeping overhaul of immigration law that caters to his relatively narrow group of hard-line nativists all he wants, but Congress simply isn’t going to give it to him.

Will he go through with the shutdown threat, as budget maven Stan Collender expects?

The first thing to remember about shutdown showdown politics is that threats and brinkmanship are nothing new, and nothing to be afraid of. Threatening a shutdown can be just a signal from one of the bargainers that something is a very high priority. As long as no one goes through with it — often because others try to accommodate at least some of the highest priorities of each player at the table — the public never really notices, and not only is no harm done but everyone can benefit. Even if time runs out and the government shuts down for a day or two, it’s still mainly a Washington story. That was the case with the two shutdowns early this year, one of which lasted for a long weekend and the other only a few hours. 

Shutdowns rarely extend beyond a weekend or so mainly because there’s no real point to them. If congressional leaders and the president need to reach agreement on something, allowing the government to shut down while they are negotiating isn’t likely to generate any new information needed to cut a deal, and usually none of the players in the bargaining think that it will. Since a shutdown only happens when government spending bills expire, and since it’s easy for Congress to pass short-term stopgaps to keep the government open while negotiations continue, there’s just no reason to let funding lapse and a shutdown begin.

The only times when that hasn’t worked have been when one of the players — House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1994-1995, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz and other radical Republicans in 2013 — mistakenly believed that a shutdown would generate public-opinion benefits to their side. In other words, shutdowns happen not because of bargaining impasses, but because one side actively chooses them. But that’s self-defeating, in part because of the (quite sensible in this case) media norm of assigning the blame to the shutdown-seeking side. Right now, that would be Trump.

The mechanics of congressional procedure also make a shutdown less likely this fall. If a shutdown happens because Congress never attempts to pass a short-term funding bill to keep the government running after the current fiscal year ends at the end of September, then the Republicans who run Congress would be blamed. If they do move a short-term bill keeping current spending levels and policy in place, then it is likely to pass overwhelmingly. Trump would have to veto an innocuous bill keeping the government open to get his shutdown, and even that might not work because Congress might override the veto. 

And if House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell try to shift the blame to Democrats by moving a short-term funding bill that includes money for a wall and sweeping immigration reform, it probably wouldn’t get majorities in either chamber, which would again leave Republicans with the responsibility of passing a clean funding bill that could get the votes. 

Remember: Trump doesn’t set legislative strategy. Ryan and McConnell do, and they’re on record as opposing any shutdown, for the good reason that they believe their party’s candidates would suffer from it.

So for a shutdown to happen, Trump would have to veto a clean spending bill that leaders of both parties supported — and then enough Republicans would have to vote to sustain that veto. Could that happen? Sure. It’s just hard to see any practical reason for it. Trump’s bargaining situation would be no better, and he’d almost certainly wind up having to surrender eventually. So what it would really take is for Trump to decide to do it because he thinks it would be really cool … and then to have dozens of House Republicans indulge him even at a cost to their own party. Which means, even though it would make no sense at all, that a shutdown really could happen after all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.