With each passing day, it looks more and more likely that a partial government shutdown could happen in the next month unless Congress agrees to allocate $5 billion for President Donald Trump's proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. If Congress won't fund his wall, Trump says he's willing to take responsibility for a shutdown.
There are a few ways this could play out, but unless Trump folds, it's a no-win situation. That's because building a border wall is a bad idea, and so is shutting down the government.
Scenario 1: Trump gets his wall funding and the federal government stays open
In this scenario, Congress agrees to provide $5 billion for the wall, and Trump signs the spending deal into law before midnight on December 21. While this would keep the government fully funded, it would also be a waste of $5 billion.
Trump has been obsessed with illegal immigration since the early days of his campaign, and his preferred solution is a wall. The wall would supposedly keep Mexicans and other Central Americans from entering the U.S., but as Reason's Shikha Dalmia explained in January, net migration flows have actually reversed in recent years. Now, more Mexicans are trying to leave the U.S. than are attempting to enter. The pro-wall argument also assumes that illegal immigration to the U.S. is a bad thing, which isn't true. Illegal immigrants are less prone to commit crimes than native-born Americans. In fact, studies suggest that undocumented immigration is actually linked to decreased crime.
There are plenty of practical considerations to take into account as well. For instance, the federal government doesn't actually own more than two-thirds of the land on the southern border with Mexico. And even if Trump was able to get the wall built, it would likely take additional Border Patrol agents and technology to apprehend potential border-crossers. Plus, the wall would do nothing to stop illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. legally and overstayed their visas. Such immigrants made up 44 percent of the entire undocumented population in 2015, according to a Center for Migration Studies report.
Then there's the fact that $5 billion would just be the start. Reason's Eric Boehm estimated in March that getting the wall up could cost up to $28 billion, which doesn't include the $48.3 billion in maintenance costs over the first decade. While $5 billion is just a fraction of the wall's total cost, the sunk-cost fallacy could cause Congress to eventually appropriate 10 times that amount with much less fanfare.
Thankfully, this appears to be the least likely scenario. While it's possible the Republican-controlled House could approve a bill funding the wall, it would probably die in the Senate. Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, but Senate rules require that such bills receive the support of at least 60 senators. It's highly unlikely that nine Democrats vote for border wall funding, which could mean:
Scenario 2: Trump doesn't get his wall funding and the government partially shuts down
Unless Republicans and Democrats can agree on a spending deal in the next week, this is what will happen. To be clear, Trump has already approved $931 billion of the federal government's roughly $1.2 trillion in proposed funding for the 2019 fiscal year, according to Bloomberg. As I explained on Tuesday, there are seven remaining spending bills that must be approved by the December 21 deadline in order to avoid a partial shutdown. They would fund the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as well as the Departments of Justice, Commerce, Agriculture, and Homeland Security; the last of which is where Trump wants to direct border wall funding.
Lawmakers in both parties agree that Republicans don't really have a plan of action moving forward. "There is no discernable plan. None that's been disclosed," said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R–Texas). "I've not heard of any Republican who's sitting down and figuring out how to get this through. There's no plan," added Sen. Patty Murray (D–Wash.).
Meanwhile, the House is out of session until Wednesday, when there will only be three days left to avoid a shutdown. So what happens if neither side budges? As is usually the case when it comes to a government shutdown, nothing good.
For one thing, it likely won't save any money. Shutdowns have no effect on the roughly two-thirds of the federal budget that goes to entitlement spending.
Taxpayers aren't saving on federal workers' salaries, either. A fact sheet published by Democratic staffers on the Senate Appropriations Committee claims 380,000 non-essential federal workers will be furloughed. This includes the majority of workers at the Departments of Commerce and Housing and Urban Development, as well as NASA, the National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the IRS. They won't be paid during the furlough, but after past government shutdowns, Congress has usually voted to give them back pay. Essentially, they will likely be paid for not working.
Another 420,000 essential employees will keep working without pay. However, like their furloughed colleagues, they'll probably receive back pay once the shutdown is over.
This is probably a good time to point out that essential employees include federal workers who carry around guns. This includes 41,000 federal law enforcement and correctional officers like FBI and DEA agents. About 53,000 TSA agents will still be on the clock (a government shutdown doesn't mean the government can't grope you), as well as 54,000 Customs and Border Protection agents and officers. As Reason's Scott Shackford accurately noted when the government shut down in January: "The parts of the federal government authorized to shoot you are still functioning."
But a shutdown can hurt private businesses. The fact is, there are so many hoops the government makes companies jump through that when a shutdown happens, some businesses have to stop what they're doing until federal offices reopen.
This means the best scenario is
Scenario 3: Trump gives in and the shutdown is averted without border wall funding
According to Politico, there's a chance Trump agrees to a bipartisan spending deal that includes funds for border security, but not a wall. While this wouldn't do anything to reform the federal government's wild spending habits, it would avoid a shutdown without giving in to Trump's ridiculous demands. At least right now, that seems like the best we can hope for.
Correction: This post originally stated that visa overstayers make up a third of the entire undocumented population. But according to to a 2017 Center for Migration Studies report, the number is closer to 44 percent.