Populists on both sides govern against the government

The country has avoided another unnecessary immigration-related shutdown (though not a national emergency), but the underlying problem actually has little to do with immigration and almost everything to do with the low regard that elements of the left and the right hold government.    

During the previous shutdown, both sides of the political spectrum invoked sanctimonious sentiments to mask their inability to govern. The president cited a “humanitarian crisis” at the border while the left claimed that the border represented a “humanitarian emergency.


When the president mentioned the concept of a “smart” barrier in his State of the Union address, it seemed that both the left and the right could finally agree on the meaning of a phrase — since the House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) had used this exact same terminology to describe something which the Democrats would be willing to support.  

However, comity creates a new problem, a need to substantively govern rather than posture. Voila, the crisis-driven negotiations over border security in recent days. The newly reached deal does not absolve either side of having brought the country to the brink of another shutdown for little more than the purpose of scoring partisan points.

Neither the right’s nor the left’s intransigence is supportable. Despite the sweet-nothings that Stephen Miller has been whispering to Trump about the need for a hard-line immigration policy, the reality is that illegal immigration has not been this low since 2004.

However, the left’s limitation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) beds to a daily average of approximately 45,000 (a de facto cap on arrests if there is nowhere to detain individuals) is arbitrary and unresponsive to changing conditions.  

The new developments that brought the government to the brink of another shutdown — and instead a national emergency declaration — are not rooted in any one policy issue, but, rather,they take their fuel from a disdain for institutions of governance that creates a malignant axis between populists on both ends of the political spectrum.

On the left, the “Abolish ICE” faction is literally advocating for the partial obliteration of government. This contingent is so bent on kneecapping an agency that it is oblivious to potential unintended consequences.

Anti-establishment types might rub their hands gleefully at depriving ICE of resources. However, forcing ICE to prioritize the individuals it arrests (by limiting the number that it can house) actually gives the agency authority to act with greater discretion. It seems that deferring to ICE’s judgement is the last thing that the Abolish ICErs would want.   

This crowd has its counterpart. On the right, in the constituency of conspiracy-theory-addled voters who insist that a “deep-state” bogeyman is hiding under the bed.

During the last shutdown, Trump himself retweeted an article that claimed that the government was working better without the furloughed employees and that these individuals should not bother to return to their jobs.

Of course it is easy to be flippant when you can call back tens of thousands of workers, without pay, to cover functions that the American public would otherwise quickly miss.

It is terrifying to consider that our lawmakers hold such negative views of the very institutions of which they are supposed to be stewards. Nevertheless, it seems that both sides are all too eager to use civil servants as scapegoats.

Federal workers are vilified for implementing laws over which they have no control. When policymakers hit an impasse, individuals on both sides of the aisle quickly reduce civil servants to bargaining chips.

Unfortunately, the manufactured immigration crises have real consequences for federal workers and the economies to which those workers contribute.

The situation during the last shutdown became so dire that a modern-day breadline of federal workers passed through the shadow of the Trump Hotel for handouts from celebrity chef Jose Andres. Communities far outside of the beltway also suffered from the shutdown, as federal employees’ incomes went dry.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the January 2019 shutdown cost the U.S. economy $11 billion, a perverse consequence, considering that only $5.7 billion was at stake in the border wall dispute.

Clearly, the political hay that both sides could make out of the wall impasse was worth more to them than the actual funding at stake.

Even though an 11th-hour agreement has broken the current deadlock, the underlying dynamics of anti-government populism suggest that there is no reason to be confident that the country will not once again plunge into future shutdown crises.    

Reasonable facets of both parties need to prove that they are capable of being responsible caretakers of the national (not the partisan) interest by removing brinksmanship and hostage taking from the political arsenal.

Until 1980, a lapse in appropriations did not equate to unpaid federal workers. The present morass is the legacy of Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti who, by invoking the Antideficiency Act of 1870, paved the way for the government to deem employees responsible for “emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property” to be so exceptional that they are required to work without pay. This interpretation needs to be rectified. 


Furthermore, Congress, in the midst of shutdowns of its own making, continues to be paid while employees of executive branch agencies find it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. 

A provision to trigger a suspension of pay for members of Congress and their staffs, through the duration of a shutdown, would be a strong disincentive against future irresponsible intractability. It would be glaringly self-serving for members of the legislative branch to argue against such a mechanism.

Although another shutdown has been averted, the fact that such an embarrassment remains a real possibility is troubling.

It suggests that lawmakers — especially the populist elements on both sides of the political spectrum — perceive greater political benefits in wrecking the institutions of government than in ensuring that those institutions are put to work in the service of good policy.

Darren E. Tromblay served as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. government for more than a decade. He is the author of the forthcoming book, "Spying: Assessing US Domestic Intelligence Since 9/11," (Lynne Rienner, 2019) and "Political Influence Operations: How Foreign Actors Seek to Shape U.S. Policy Making" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).