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Your questions about the government shutdown, answered (part 2)

Passengers wait in line at Miami International Airport on Jan. 11, 2019. (AP) Passengers wait in line at Miami International Airport on Jan. 11, 2019. (AP)

Passengers wait in line at Miami International Airport on Jan. 11, 2019. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 17, 2019

We recently asked readers what they wanted to know about the government shutdown.

In a previous installment, we tackled questions about missed work and pay for government employees. Here, we’ll address the legislative process and how the border wall proposal prompted the shutdown.

What relationship does funding the border wall have to the shutdown?

The dispute concerns funding for President Donald Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump made the wall one of his major campaign promises, but Democrats say a wall isn’t a good solution to border security.

When the two sides were unable to come to an agreement, bills that fund much of the federal government expired. Trump said he wouldn’t sign bills without border funding, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he wouldn’t allow the Senate to consider bills that Trump wasn’t going to sign. With the funding spigot shut off, unfunded departments and agencies were pushed into shutdown mode.

How is McConnell able to prevent a vote on legislation that Trump won't agree to?

McConnell, as majority leader, benefits from the "right of first recognition," a Senate precedent dating to the 1930s that gives him effective control of the floor, at least for the short term, said Steven Smith, a congressional specialist at Washington University in St. Louis.

If enough senators get on board, can they force McConnell to bring the House spending bill to the floor?

A senator may ask fellow senators for unanimous consent to bring up the House-passed spending bill, which aims to reopen the government. In all likelihood, McConnell or another senator would object, and one objection would be all that’s needed to torpedo the request.

At that point, a senator could make a motion to proceed to the bill, but that can be filibustered, meaning blocked by at least one senator. Because there are currently 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats (or Democratic-caucusing independents) in the Senate, that means Democrats would need to find 13 Republicans to break ranks with McConnell and vote to "invoke cloture" in order to proceed to a vote on the bill itself.

"As long as McConnell is backed by most members of his party conference, he can prevent cloture from being invoked on the House bill," Smith said. "He is willing to play the bad guy as long as that is what his colleagues want."

What happens if both chambers passed a bill to keep government open, and the president won’t sign it?

The House and Senate could override a presidential veto by passing the bills again with two-thirds support in each chamber. According to the Senate, Congress has historically overridden fewer than 10 percent of all presidential vetoes.

Did President Barack Obama shut down the government to protect Obamacare?

The September 2013 shutdown did involve the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature health care law. But it would be a stretch to say Obama shut down the government to protect the Affordable Care Act.

On the eve of the shutdown, none of the regular appropriation bills to pay for government operations had passed, and a group of 80 House Republicans signed a letter to House Speaker John Boehner saying this was the time to eliminate any dollars that would allow Obamacare to move forward.

Obama, for his part, said he would veto any bill that defunded the Affordable Care Act. His veto threat and the Democratic-controlled Senate doomed any measure that undermined the health care program.

In reality, though, the Affordable Care Act didn’t need congressional appropriations for many of its key parts to function. Most of the law — the insurance marketplace, the premium subsidies, and the taxes and regulations — were set to continue unimpeded, because they relied on funding sources separate from the bills that were being held up.

In addition, the 2013 shutdown involved two issues rather than the one in today’s shutdown. In addition to the health care law, the 2013 dispute also involved the debt ceiling –– the legal amount the government is allowed to borrow.

The government was closing in on the legal limit of $16.699 trillion in debt. Without the flexibility to borrow more, Washington faced the prospect of not being able to pay back Treasury notes as they came due. Republicans wanted broader spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit.

How much of the border has a wall now?

The U.S.-Mexico border stretches nearly 2,000 miles, more than half of it along the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. As of July 2018, the border had 654 miles of vehicle and pedestrian fencing, according to a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Some of the $1.6 billion provided by Congress in March 2018 for border security has been spent on upgrading and repairing portions of existing barriers.

How much will it cost to complete?

There is no hard estimate for how much it would cost to add fencing to the remaining portion of the border, but media estimates have placed it between $5.1 billion and $25 billion. In 2017, Senate Democrats asserted that it could cost as much as $70 billion.

Completion costs are uncertain without knowing details of where it will go, the materials used, and other construction details.

Is there really a crisis at the border?

Measured by the number of people crossing the border illegally, no.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has southwest border apprehension data going back to fiscal year 1960. In fiscal year 2000, Border Patrol recorded more than 1.6 million apprehensions at the southwest border. In 2017, it was much lower -- about 304,000. It rose a bit in 2018 but not near prior levels -- the figure was just under 400,000.

That’s not to say there aren’t policy challenges at the southern border, but critics say a wall isn’t the best way to solve them. Immigration policy experts say there is a crisis in the U.S. asylum system.

Thousands of desperate people are coming to the United States to escape violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The majority are women and children who want to request asylum under the legal immigration system. They are generally seeking out border agents, not seeking to evade them.

Once immigrants are in the asylum process, it can take years for their cases to be decided. That lengthy waiting period creates an incentive for people to come to the United States, knowing they’ll be able to stay for at least some period of time, experts say

"I think there's definitely a policy conversation to be had about what additional security is needed at the border," said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "But the administration has increased enforcement efforts rather than try to figure out how to adjust the asylum system, policies and practices, and border infrastructure."

How much is the shutdown costing?

The final pricetag will only be known in retrospect, but it’s expected to be costly.

As we noted in our analysis of the economic impact of the 2013 shutdown, the government faces late payment penalties and other logistical costs associated with preparing or recuperating from two weeks of stalled activity (for instance, delayed drug approvals slowing the path to market). The government also lost revenues from shuttered parks and museums.

Beyond that, numerous independent economic research groups found that the shutdown stalled private-sector activity, hurting gross domestic product.

In an analysis of the 2013 government shutdown, Standard & Poor’s estimated the economic hit to be $24 billion, including drops in consumer and investor confidence.

More than two weeks into the current shutdown, even the White House reportedly acknowledged that the economic hit was likely to be larger than they had anticipated -- rising from the initial estimate of a 0.1 percentage-point cut in economic growth every two weeks to 0.13 points every week.

Have a question about the government shutdown? Email us at [email protected]

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Our Sources

Email interview with Steven Smith, Washington University in St. Louis political scientist, Jan. 16, 2019

Email interview with Josh Ryan, political scientist at Utah State University, Jan. 16, 2019

Email interview with Gregory Koger, political scientist at the University of Miami, Jan. 16, 2019

Other sources linked in article

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Your questions about the government shutdown, answered (part 2)