I do not think Donald Trump had envisioned that in his first anniversary as the POTUS he would have to watch a federal government lock out because his government could not pass his first budget. Just as he, perhaps, had not envisioned in his business tycoon days that one day he would be his country’s president.
It is probable that by the time this column is published, the US Congress will be able to pass a budget bill through some short term patchwork, but the harm the past few weeks of bickering over the budget between the two parties has caused the politics of the country will have far reaching consequences.
For one, the mutual slandering and blame-gaming between the parties have gone to a new low, putting public trust of politicians, particularly those in power, at historical bottom.
For the other, the public image of the president has been reinforced as one that had been since the beginning of his campaign -- a person who has little patience to learn, educate himself, and show mettle as leader of a country with high moral and ethical values.
To understand why a government shutdown occurs in the US, (it has happened before also, once during Obama and another during Clinton), it is necessary to go over the federal budget process in the US, in particular the “appropriations process,” which is fundamental toward understanding the budget debate each year.
This annual congressional budget process is also called the appropriations process. Appropriations bills specify how much money will go to different government agencies and programs. In addition to these funding bills, Congress must pass legislation that provides the federal government the legal authority to actually spend the money.
In theory, there are five steps in the budget process. Step one begins with the president submitting each year a proposed budget to the Congress, and followed in step two by budget resolutions in both houses of the Congress.
However, steps three and four are most crucial in the budget process as these involve the most important discussions and voting by the appropriations sub-committees in both houses. These subcommittees “markup,” vote, and reconcile differences in the appropriations bill.
There are 12 different appropriations bill comprising approval of spending by federal agencies that are captured in each bill. It is after these sub-committees have authorised the respective bills or spending authority that the bills are sent to the president for signature.
It may be ironic, but it is possible that the final budget bill that the president gets from Congress may not be the same as that he had originally sent. But he is obliged to sign it if it has been approved by both houses.
This year’s budget impasse started after President Trump sent his budget proposal last year that contained, among other things, his $20 billion request for his much vaunted wall on US-Mexico border.
True, in this hard wall request, he had also wanted additional resources to augment border security, but the mere mention of a physical wall upset many Democratic legislators who view this as an impossible pipe dream that has more to do with Trump’s campaign rhetoric exhibiting xenophobia than an actual beefing up of border security. The budget discussions were also mired in lack of bipartisan agreement on immigration policy, health care, and tax policy.
As time drew nearer to the new budget year beginning October 1 last year, Congress had to agree on letting the government work with budgets for different departments with stopgap continuing resolutions (CR) twice last year, the last one expiring on January 20 this year. It was absolutely necessary, therefore, that the Congress pass a new comprehensive budget bill for the full year.
However, the discussions became hard, and disagreement between the Republicans and Democrats much harder on many issues, principal of which was Trump’s insistence on funding for the wall and his decision to revoke President Obama’s executive order deferring deportation of about 800,000 undocumented young immigrants popularly referred to as Dreamers.
These were people who were brought to the US as children by their relatives illegally, and have since remained here, some for over 20 years. The Democrats protested that the border wall was not only fanciful and expensive -- by itself it would not bring about border security. They also demanded a proper dispensation on the future of young undocumented immigrants who came here as children with a path to their citizenship.
What will remain as a permanent mark is Donald Trump’s inability to have his first very budget passed
There were hectic negotiations between President Trump and legislators from both parties, but unfortunately, Trump’s negotiating style and veering tactics made it difficult for the legislators to come to definite agreement.
Sometimes, Trump would show that he was amenable to lower his demand for funding the wall and even agree to not revoke Obama’s executive order against the Dreamers. But the next day, we would renege on his promise and go back to his original stance jeopardising the budget discussions. His most egregious conduct during such a meeting was his now infamous comment disparaging immigrants from some countries in very crude terms. His remarks shocked not only his opponents in Congress, but many of his own party men.
The drama of budget discussion with Trump in the headlines kept people on their toes until the midnight curtain on the last temporary budget spending authority fell on January 20.
Fortunately, however, the government shutdown is not all as dreadful as it sounds. The legislators know it, and President Trump knows it. The impact on the average citizen is not as hard as it may seem.
For one, the average Joe in the country is not among the 2 million who are employed by the federal government. Among those 2 million, about less than half would be on unpaid leave as long as the spending authority is withheld by the Congress.
What will impact the average citizen (for now at least) is the inability to visit many the federal parks, and delays in getting some services such as a passport. But these too will not be for long.
What will remain as a permanent mark is Donald Trump’s inability to have his first budget passed in Congress. It may not hurt his own purse, but it will hurt his ability to operate as the chief executive of the country and be a credible leader of his own party that reluctantly embraced him after he won the campaign.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.