Dave Anderson: How to break the government shutdown impasse

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The impasse in the dispute over the government shutdown and the border wall is an immensely complicated policy and political problem that pits two sides against each other who have diametrically opposed perspectives about the best path forward for the country.

It is useful to distinguish the different issues involved, especially concerning the very concept of building a wall.

There are basically three issues involved, which can be formulated in terms of questions:

Will a wall be effective in keeping immigrants from entering our country illegally?

Is the cost of building a wall worth it, whether that is $5 billion or $25 billion?

Will building a wall help or hurt each political party in question?

The first question is an empirical question. Empirical questions can be about the past, present or future. They basically are questions of fact. What in fact happened in the past? What in fact is the case today? What in fact will happen in the future?

Some questions about the future can be answered with great reliability — for example, questions about Newtonian mechanics. If we drop a ball from the first floor of a building, what will happen to the ball? We can determine with certainty where it will fall and how long it will take. With quantum mechanics, on the other hand, we cannot predict with certainty the velocity and position of subatomic particles at the same time according to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

With social science, it is impossible to predict with certainty what will happen if we take certain public actions, but some actions are more predicable than others. If we reduce Social Security payments from $900 billion to $300 billion, then we can predict widespread problems.

It is very difficult to predict with any degree of reliability if the wall would be effective. There are walls in over 50 countries worldwide, including Israel, and there are ongoing debates about whether they are effective in reducing illegal immigration and terrorism. Often walls are a part of the solution and thus it is difficult to know how important a wall is.

The question for the United States really cannot be answered in any responsible way in advance. We have no history in this area. This public policy topic is virgin territory for us.

Would the cost of the wall be worth it? This policy question is basically an ethical question since it concerns how we spend our tax dollars. If building the wall would ultimately be effective, then the answer is presumably yes. If it would not be effective, then the answer is presumably no. But since we cannot say with any degree of reliability if the wall would be effective, we really can’t address the cost question in any responsible way either.

Would building the wall help Trump and the Republicans politically? The answer appears to be yes. Still, it is hard to know. It could hurt them as Democrats may argue that it failed or was a waste of money and galvanize their base in 2020 to defeat Trump, keep control of the House and take control of the Senate. If the wall is not built, that appears to help the Democrats. But it could hurt them, since Trump could use this against them in 2020.

Of the three questions the one that is most complex is the third question, the political question. This issue involves posturing, leveraging, and a whole set of other issues connected to the House Democratic strategy to attack President Trump in the months ahead with their oversight capacity.

A resolution to the impasse will ensue if both parties give more attention to trying to answer the first two questions. In their quest to answer them, both sides would discover that they have weaker overall positions than they thought. House and Senate Republicans should take the lead on addressing these questions since President Trump clearly will not. Leaders Schumer and Pelosi and their staff should address these questions also.

Even if President Trump’s actions are a political stunt, the issue at this point is not just between him and the Democrats; it involves the Republican leadership and all Republican representatives and senators.

We need to move from the theater of the absurd to some honest acknowledgment that both sides cannot be right and neither side has knock-down arguments.

Moreover, positioning for 2020 should not be the driving factor of this impasse. It is time to make a decision that is based on what is best for the country, which of course includes dealing with the frustration and financial struggles of the 800,000 furloughed federal workers, and not who will have power in 2020. Only when both sides accept that their opponents are not taking absurd positions will the impasse be resolved.

Dave Anderson is editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He has taught at the University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University.

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