The Democrats Threw the Shutdown Fight – and That’s Fine

Chucked if you do, Chucked if you don’t. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Democratic Party does not deserve the trust of its progressive base on questions of immigration or political strategy. After all, the last Democratic president oversaw the deportation of 3 million people; the one before him passed the law that made such mass deportation possible; and our current president is Donald Trump.

It’s understandable then, that the left is not inclined to take a generous view of the Democrats’ decision to help end a government shutdown — just hours after it began to bite, and well before making any meaningful progress toward legal status for DACA recipients.

But in this particular instance, that outrage doesn’t seem warranted.

Put simply, it is hard to see how the tactical costs of postponing the shutdown fight — for three weeks — outweigh the substantive benefits of immediately ending a months-long children’s health-care crisis. As of Monday morning, Congressional Republicans had allowed the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to go without long-term funding for 114 days. This malign neglect had already led many states to scale back their enrollment efforts, while a few were on the cusp of suspending their participation in CHIP altogether — a development that would have left thousands of children without access to affordable health care. By voting for a three-week continuing resolution, Democrats averted that disaster, and secured six years of funding for CHIP.

In my understanding, the case against accepting that trade-off goes something like this: Action is urgently needed to protect 700,000 Dreamers from deportation; a prolonged government shutdown is a surefire way to force such action; and Republicans would agree to pass a “clean” CHIP bill — in the middle of a government shutdown —before they would allow states to start suspending CHIP.

The first premise of this argument is true; although it’s a bit less true today than it was the last time Democrats voted to fund the government without a DACA replacement. The second premise seems suspect, and the third, laughable (these people do not care if poor kids lose access to health insurance — they spent most of last year actively trying to take it away from them).

On the first point: Much of the public discussion of DACA has implied that Dreamers will retain their legal status until early March. But this is mistaken. Roughly 22,000 DACA recipients missed the deadline for renewing their legal status until March 5 (when the program is set to expire). Thus, when Democrats declined to force a shutdown over DACA in December, about 122 Dreamers were losing their right to live in the United States every day. Activists could credibly claim that the party was ignoring the urgency of the issue.

But in early January, a federal judge in California ordered the Trump administration to reinstate DACA. The White House has appealed that decision — but, remarkably, they did not ask the Supreme Court to stay the ruling. Instead, the administration has begun accepting new DACA renewal applications. Now, the March 5 deadline is no longer misleading because many Dreamers will irrevocably lose their legal status before that date — it’s misleading because most will (probably) be able to keep their legal status long after it, even if no legislative fix is passed.

This isn’t to say that the Dreamers’ current purgatorial position is acceptable. The White House isn’t taking DACA applications from Dreamers who were never previously covered by the program. And the administration can still seek a stay that would shutter zombie-DACA whenever it chooses. Further, it will take time for the federal government to process renewal applications — and in the interim, thousands of Dreamers will have to get by without access to legal employment. Still, their situation is less dire than it was in December, and is almost certain to stay that way over the next three weeks. And this fact strengthens the argument for backing a short-term continuing resolution that immediately resolves the CHIP crisis.

All this said — if we could be certain that a prolonged shutdown would force Republicans to pass a DREAM Act in (relatively) short order, it would have been worth it for Democrats to stick their guns today. But we can’t be certain of that. In fact, there’s reason to suspect that shutting down the government is simply not an effective tactic for forcing the GOP’s hand on this.

The strongest source of Democratic leverage on DACA is, and always has been, the fact that the Republican Party is afraid to strip legal status from 700,000 American-raised, law-abiding, gainfully employed people — who have deep ties to American companies, churches, universities, and communities. The Breitbart right might applaud such a development, but polling suggests that no one else will. And once the dispossession of 700,000 Dreamers ceases to be a looming threat — and becomes a present reality — the backlash is certain to be immense. The risk of mass protest and unrest is high.

The weakness of the Republicans’ position is reflected in their refusal to actually argue for it. Outside of the party’s far-right fringe, no GOP lawmakers are arguing that the Dreamers should be deported. Even President Trump refuses to make that case. His Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, has promised (however emptily) not to deport law-abiding Dreamers, even after they lose their legal status.

The administration’s recent actions give off a similar odor of ambivalence. Given the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, the White House almost certainly could have won a stay that would have allowed it to proceed with ending DACA on March 5. Instead, it moved rapidly to reopen renewal applications for the program.

The GOP isn’t eager to pass a DREAM Act. It is about as afraid of angering its nativist base as it is of deporting Dreamers. The best option for Republicans is to do nothing; keep zombie-DACA in place past March 5; and direct the public’s attention to some other topic — like, for example, the negative effects of a government shutdown.

During the mini-shutdown, Republicans felt no need to defend the substance of their position on DACA. There were, after all, so many other issues to talk about. The troops, the monuments, CHIP — dear, sweet CHIP! And when pressed on the subject, they could simply argue that they were not going to discuss the issue until the government reopened — to do otherwise would only embolden the hostage-takers.

If hundreds of DACA recipients were still irrevocably losing their legal status every day, this gambit might not be sustainable. But in a context where the White House is accepting renewal applications — and there is no imminent deadline for when DACA actually ends — it’s hard for me to understand how an extended shutdown would put more pressure on Republicans to pass a DREAM Act, than it would on Democrats to reopen the government. Over the course of such a shutdown, the number of Americans inconvenienced by the Democrats’ obstruction would steadily grow, while the number of DACA recipients with no means of renewing their work permits would not.

It’s possible that the GOP, as the ruling party, would bear the blame for an extended shutdown. But if Republicans were constantly arguing for the urgency of funding the government — and of renewing CHIP — while Democrats were talking about immigration, it seems likely that the public would eventually side with the former.

So: The efficacy of a prolonged shutdown, as a tactic for forcing action on DACA is, at the very least, unclear. And the substantive harms of the tactic are considerable. There are furloughed federal workers who live paycheck to paycheck. There are Americans who do contract work for the government who could lose wages that they won’t get back. And countless Americans will be adversely impacted in ways we can’t even predict — during the 2013 shutdown, low-income Americans temporarily lost access to food stamps due to a computer glitch.

Given the seriousness of these harms, and the uncertainty of success, it’s not clear to me that launching a prolonged government shutdown next month is a good idea. But sticking with one now, and thus, adding the slow-motion collapse of CHIP to the list of downsides — when you can fund CHIP and still preserve the option to force a shutdown in three weeks — seems borderline indefensible.

The Democrats Threw the Shutdown Fight — and That’s Fine