Improvisation isn’t Sen. Charles Schumer’s forte. When President Trump surprised the senator and Rep. Nancy Pelosi by broadcasting their acrimonious Oval Office meeting, the anguine gentleman from New York was caught off-guard.
Schumer and Pelosi invoked the word “shutdown” as though it were a magical incantation. Trump said that he’d be “proud” to shut down the government if he doesn’t get funding for a border wall. As Trump bellowed and berated the Democrats, “Schumer sat staring forward and not meeting the president’s eyes,” as CNBC put it. The promise of that kind of spectacle is about one half of why Donald Trump was elected.
Illegal immigration is the other half. If the federal apparatus serves any purpose at all, providing for national security — beginning with securing the borders — is it.
Washington should do its damned job. Which it will, once it has exhausted every other option. Republicans have the chance to take some of those options away.
Disorder is always undesirable in government. And this year’s installment of shutdown theater finds many different currents of chaos adjoined: a dysfunctional constitutional order; a border that in practice is defended by very little more than strong language; a broken congressional budgeting process in which the regular order of appropriations has been supplanted by a series of “continuing resolutions,” stopgap measures that have now been passed more than 100 times in this still-young century.
The abandonment of what budget geeks refer to as “regular order” keeps Washington effectively in a state of constant fiscal emergency.
Republicans used to fear being blamed for these things, a part of the more general GOP tendency to fear being blamed for things. But they have discovered that the political price for these acts of theater is pretty low. They are slow learners, but they learn — or at least they can, where there is a question of self-preservation.
Mainly, shutdowns inconvenience federal workers who get furloughed, which upsets their household finances. One feels for them. What’s rarely said aloud but surely appreciated by Republicans is that practically all of them are Democrats.
Republicans ought to be the party of order. But border security is an issue worth taking a stand on, even at the cost of a little ceremonial disorder. The politics are broadly on the side of those who wish to see the borders more adequately secured, and the issue will put Democrats in the position of defending illegal immigration.
Republicans have the right politics, then, but the wrong policy. Building a wall would bring some benefits and would present Trump with an important symbolic victory, but it is at best an incomplete policy, and in some ways a bad one.
For much of the US-Mexico border, a wall is neither practical nor desirable. A wall, moreover, does things that we don’t want to do, such as necessitating the appropriation of private property along the border, interrupting access to water, etc.
Those headaches can be dealt with. The bigger problem is that a wall doesn’t do what we want it to do: cut off the flow of illegal immigrants. Most new illegal immigrants don’t enter the United States by wading across the Rio Grande. They come legally on visas and fail to leave when required. You can build the wall 10 feet higher, but unless you are going to build it high enough to cut off international air traffic, it won’t solve the problem.
If the Republicans are going to shut down the government over border security, they should do it on behalf of a better border-security agenda.
The most important reform would be putting an electronic wall between would-be illegal workers and their employers through a robust, mandatory program of employment-eligibility verification. And then there’s the mundane, tedious work of everyday law enforcement: Raiding a few construction sites will net a few illegal drywall installers, but if you really want to change behavior, then that begins with frog-marching the employers off to the federal pokey.
The federal government doesn’t have a very good record on that, and winning convictions in such cases is difficult. But it is the employers who provide the main lure for illegal immigration in the first place. And we know where they live.
Republicans should be the responsible party on immigration. The Democrats are too much in thrall to identity politics to do that. And Republicans should not fear a shutdown.
What they should fear is getting too little in exchange.
Kevin Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review, where this article first appeared.
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