When, in late September, President Trump acceded to the Republican congressional leadership’s demand that he not shut the federal government before the midterm elections, the very common assumption among budget wonks and political analysts was that he would shut it when the continuing resolution expired the first week in December.
I’m not so sure.
The basics of the situation are quite simple. Only five of the annual appropriations for the current fiscal year have been enacted so far and all of the agencies and departments covered by the remaining 7 are only funded through December 7. If Congress and the president don’t enact full-year appropriations or another short-term continuing resolution by then, those agencies and departments will be forced to shut down.
The sole issue is the wall Trump wants to build between the United States and Mexico. Trump says he either gets the funds (anywhere from a $5 billion initial payment to $25 billion for what we’ve been told is the full cost) or he’ll veto the appropriation that doesn’t include it.
But that was before the election results significantly changed the political environment.
There are three things to keep in mind as December 7 approaches.
1. Does Trump Want An Actual Wall Or Just An Issue? The new reality is that, with a Democrat-controlled House next year, it may make more political sense for Trump to keep the wall issue alive through the next Congress — especially if he’ll be able to blame House Democrats for it not being funded — than to get his funding now.
“The wall” isn’t the real issue anyway; it’s just a way for Trump and other Republicans to appeal to the GOP base on immigration without using language that others will find offensive.
Given how much Trump relied on immigration in the midterms, it’s a safe bet that he’ll want to keep the issue alive and to make it a major focus of his reelection campaign over the next two years. One of the best ways to do that will be not to make a stand that it be funded now.
2. Trump Will Have Multiple Opportunities To Raise The Wall Issue Next Year. If having the issue of the wall rather than the wall itself is Trump’s most important consideration, then next year will give him more opportunities than usual to keep it alive. The debt ceiling, the fiscal 2020 budget resolution, the 2020 appropriations and, if Congress doesn’t do full-year 2019 appropriations in the lame duck, another CR or omnibus, could make the wall a never-ending issue through 2019. That won’t be the case if the wall is funded in the lame duck.
3. In Reality, Trump Is A Federal Budget Wuss. When it comes to the federal budget, Trump is the anti-Teddy Roosevelt: he speaks loudly but carries a very small stick. Time and again he has sworn to shut down the government over funding for his wall only to back down for one reason or another.
The two most recent examples are very instructive. In March, Congress adopted a fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriation without funding for his wall that Trump repeatedly and vociferously promised to veto until, under pressure from members of his own administration and GOP congressional leaders, he signed it. Trump then immediately vowed to never sign another appropriation without funds for his wall and kept insisting he would veto the next CR…until he very meekly signed that this September.
Of course, there are multiple Trump tweets like the ones below threatening a shutdown that have never resulted in the government actually shutting down.
I would be willing to “shut down” government if the Democrats do not give us the votes for Border Security, which includes the Wall! Must get rid of Lottery, Catch & Release etc. and finally go to system of Immigration based on MERIT! We need great people coming into our Country!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2018
I want to know, where is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this ridiculous Spending Bill, and where will it come from after the Midterms? Dems are obstructing Law Enforcement and Border Security. REPUBLICANS MUST FINALLY GET TOUGH!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2018
I am considering a VETO of the Omnibus Spending Bill based on the fact that the 800,000 plus DACA recipients have been totally abandoned by the Democrats (not even mentioned in Bill) and the BORDER WALL, which is desperately needed for our National Defense, is not fully funded.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2018
None of this means there won’t be a government shutdown this December, only that there are reasons to think it may not be as probable as many currently believe.