- - Sunday, January 13, 2019

It’s a Mexican standoff over a Mexican wall. More than a fortnight into the partial government shutdown, neither side was willing to budge. The longest government shutdown in history isn’t likely to be surpassed for a long time. One good thing that may come of this game is a recognition by everybody that shutting down the government for partisan advantage is the kind of game that only small children should play.

President Trump and the Republicans held fast in support of the demand for $5.7 billion to pay for a wall, or even a fence of steel slats. That in truth is a lot of money, but it’s nevertheless a thin slice of the $4.4 trillion the United States spends every year. The Democrats rarely blink at the idea of spending money, but this time they look eager to redeem their foolish promise not to spend “a penny” (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) or “a dime” (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer) to secure the southern border.

Mrs. Pelosi says the very idea is “immoral,” though the Democrats have regularly practiced “immorality,” routinely voting in the past for fencing along the Mexican border. Sins of all sizes apparently can be convenient, depending on the circumstances. The Democrats regard the border as a giant ATM machine, dispensing not dollars but the prospective voters who would assure Democratic majorities stretching unto forever. Hence, impasse.

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Twenty-five percent of the government, including the Homeland Security Department, the State Department and the Labor Department, would be indefinitely unfunded in the interests of winning the game. “Essential” workers, like TSA screeners, were asked to show up to work for no pay. Tax refunds would not go out on time. To give back the taxpayers’ money would rely on thousands of workers for the Internal Revenue Service to show up and work for nothing, maybe to be paid later. Hundreds of business firms in Washington that cater to federal workers and companies that fulfill federal contracts have been left to struggle.

The president has been attempting to force the issue. For the first time in the history of the shutdown game no clear villains emerged. The president gave a strong speech last week, carried on the major television networks, together with Democratic rebuttals. He cited the moral and economic costs that unsecure southern borders have wrought. “America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants who enrich our society and contribute to our nation,” he said. “But, all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration. It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages. Among those hardest hit are African-Americans and Hispanic Americans. Our southern border is a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs, including meth, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. Every week 300 of our citizens are killed by heroin alone, 90 percent of which floods across from our southern border.”

CNN and the other television networks, usually eager to report public reaction to the president’s speeches, were strangely muted. There was little talk of the breathless polls showing the speech was a flop, suggesting they found the president’s message carried the day.

The following day the president invited Chuck and Nancy and other senior congressional officials to the White House to discuss prospects of getting the government open again. The not-so-dynamic duo repeated the usual plea to re-open the government without funding the wall. The president posed the reasonable reply. If he agrees to that, will the Democrats agree to discuss funding the wall? They said no, and the president sensibly walked out of the meeting, saying it was a waste of time. Who would have said otherwise? Negotiating with “Chuck and Nancy” had become like negotiating with, well, a wall.

The Democrats think they can’t afford to let the president have a victory, even if the country would be better off for it. They can’t lose the Mexican standoff. But the president has a card up his sleeve, and Chuck and Nancy don’t. He can declare a national emergency and order the military to get to work on the wall without congressional approval. Mr. Trump has said he’s strongly considering this option. The idea makes a lot of us uneasy, though it may be legal. By constitutional design, Congress controls the purse strings, but the president administers the government. It’s why it’s called an administration. Congress is looking for opportunities to abdicate its responsibility to govern, preferring to wound the president than to join him in defending national sovereignty and the people who live here. That strikes us as an emergency.

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