The United States is entering the thirteenth day of a partial government shutdown after Congress failed to reach an agreement before the December 21st deadline, with President Trump promising to veto any bill that did not include $5 billion for a border wall. On Wednesday, January 2, Trump shot down a $2.5 billion compromise bill proposed by his own vice president Mike Pence, as well as a compromise suggested by Senate Republicans that would couple border wall funding with DACA legislation offering deportation relief and work visas to young undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children. These rejections follow last week’s failure to reach an agreement in Congress to stop the shutdown, with House Republicans shooting down a Democratic attempt to fund the government in the short term.
This leaves nine federal agencies shuttered, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation, alongside the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, Interior, and State. FEMA announced it would be unable to process flood insurance policies, thus affecting home sales, while many workers, including Forest Service firefighters, TSA employees, air traffic controllers, and Customs and Border Protection agents have to report for work without being paid. The effect is also being felt in the country’s national parks, which have been kept open without the workers to maintain them, overwhelming trash and sanitation systems. All told, approximately 800,000 federal employees and the people who rely on them are affected, with roughly 350,000 workers furloughed without pay.
That border wall funding is at the center of the current shutdown is perhaps not surprising. Trump has long signaled that the border wall is the hill on which he has planted his flag. But a look at the past several years of failed negotiations on the issue between the White House and Congress, even a Republican-led one, shows just how malleable the definition of the border wall is. Even for Trump, whose cheery Christmas message was a promise that the shutdown would continue until the border wall was funded, the form of the wall has shifted from one composed of solid concrete to a transparent one to “artistically designed steel slats.”
The Democrats, are saying loud and clear that they do not want to build a Concrete Wall – but we are not building a Concrete Wall, we are building artistically designed steel slats, so that you can easily see through it….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 19, 2018
Beyond the rhetoric of the current showdown, however, over the past two years, only 6 percent of the $1.7 billion allocated for the border wall has been expended by the administration. Tests of the latest prototypes also cast doubt on their effectiveness and sheer feasibility, considering the terrain and environments the wall is expected to traverse.
On Thursday, when Democrats gain control of the House, they are expected to approve two bills that would halt the shutdown and maintain current levels of border security funding for measures at the U.S.–Mexico border to the tune of $1.3 billion. This funding is only designated for improving existing segments of fencing and enhancing surveillance capacities. Are the existing fences already part of the so-called border wall? What would Trump’s envisioned border wall bring to the existing barriers of sheet metal, barbed-wire-topped metal fencing, and concrete columns? But it remains to be seen whether Trump will approve those bills or extend his costly political standoff. For perspective, the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 cost taxpayers millions, with $2.5 billion in back pay given to furloughed workers and $70 million lost from national park revenue alone.