WASHINGTON — As the third government shutdown of the Trump era dragged into Christmas, lawmakers from both parties said Monday that the partial lapse in government funding was in large part the consequence of Congress’ ceding of power to the executive branch, a long-standing trend that may have peaked in the Trump era.
On Christmas Eve, Donald Trump kept up his efforts to put his own spin on the shutdown, again floating the prospect of going around Congress to find funding for his promise of a wall on the southwestern border. Lawmakers had abandoned the Capitol and given up negotiating an end to the impasse until later this week.
It was not clear whether that was a path toward signing legislation to reopen the government without additional wall money or a new provocation.
“The complete Wall will be built with the Shutdown money plus funds already in hand,” wrote Trump, who later lamented that he had been left alone at the White House, away from his Florida estate and forced to confront opposition to his demands for wall funding.
“I am all alone (poor me) in the White House waiting for the Democrats to come back and make a deal on desperately needed Border Security,” he wrote.
In fact, there will be no “shutdown money” — any momentary savings realised from not paying federal workers will be gone once they receive back pay. If anything, government shutdowns cost taxpayers money in efficiencies and the cost of closing down and restarting programmes.
In a joint statement, the Democratic leaders, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, fired back, “The president wanted the shutdown, but he seems not to know how to get himself out of it.”
Trump’s jab was another indication of the president’s assumption that his power, expanded by his predecessors, was not held in check by Congress. Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin could have forced a vote on a Senate-passed stopgap spending bill that would have kept the government fully funded through early February, likely passing it with Democratic support. A senior Republican aide said that was Ryan’s intention until Trump called on Thursday to say he would veto it.
Such a vote would have infuriated Ryan’s right flank, just as similar moves by his predecessor, John A. Boehner, did during earlier fiscal impasses. But because Ryan is retiring in days, he would have had little to lose.
Instead, he chose to shield Trump rather than seeing whether he would make good on his veto threat.
“I think really what has happened is the legislative branch has ceded more and more power to the executive branch,” said former Rep, Jack Kingston, R-Ga., an ally of the president’s who described the shutdowns he endured as a lawmaker on the appropriations committee as “pretty miserable.”
“The better way of doing things,” Kingston added, “is the legislative branch saying: ‘Hell no. We control the budget, we control the tax policy, we control the health policy and we control use of force.”
Democrats saw a missed opportunity to reassert Congress’ power to govern.
“I think that Speaker Ryan and House Republicans totally ducked their responsibilities by not allowing an up-and-down vote,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “They’ve contracted out their authority to the president, as opposed to acting like a separate body.”
Senator Pat Roberts, R-Kan., cradling a poinsettia after he concluded a pro forma session of the Senate, said his colleagues had tried to persuade Trump to sign an agreement to keep the government open into the new year but had failed.
“The timing of it wasn’t right; the House has to have its say,” Roberts said. “Now we’re in a situation where both sides say, ‘Well, it’s the other side’s fault.’ We just have to get through that.”
The desultory impasse has prompted some lawmakers to lament the magnification of what one former lawmaker described as “the natural tension between Article I and Article II of the Constitution” — Article I governing the legislative branch and Article II covering the executive.
“As Capitol Hill became more polarised, presidents became more willing or reliant on executive orders to overcome an obstinate Congress,” said former Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who once led the Democratic campaign arm.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said the problem was hesitation on the part of congressional leaders.
“When it’s your president that’s in power, you owe it to him to put a bill that he supports on the floor,” Massie said. “The tragedy is that we didn’t do this in September.”
The stakes of the shutdown have been further watered down by the number of other crises buffeting Washington, some of the president’s making: the resignation, and then forced departure, of Trump’s defence secretary; the plummeting of the stock market; and Trump’s vendetta against the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome H Powell.
“This exceeds the bandwidth of Capitol Hill,” said Israel, who helped devise partisan talking points for past shutdowns. “It’s become more of a shrug of the shoulders rather than this desperation to figure out who gets the blame.”
While no legislative action is expected before Thursday, when both chambers reconvene, the possibility of the impasse lasting until January 3, when Pelosi is expected to reclaim the speakership, is becoming increasingly more likely. Without a majority in both chambers, lawmakers said, it will force Trump to realise how much more difficult it will be for him to enforce his own agenda.
“He’s going to have to realise that there are now checks and balances,” Israel said. “He’s got to govern in that environment or not govern.”