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US government shutdown now longest in US history, with consequences uncertain

US President Donald Trump has forced a government shutdown and plans a national address to defend his insistence that Congress fund a massive wall for the US-Mexico border to block illegal immigrants
Jim WATSON (AFP/File)
Trump backs down on threat of calling national emergency, as political deadlock looks set to last.

The US government shutdown that has left 800,000 federal employees without salaries as a result of President Donald Trump's row with Democrats over building a Mexico border wall entered a record 22nd day Saturday.

The Democrats' refusal to approve $5.7 billion demanded by Trump for the wall project has paralyzed Washington, with the president retaliating by refusing to sign off on budgets for swaths of government departments unrelated to the dispute.

As a result, workers as diverse as FBI agents, air traffic controllers and museum staff, did not receive paychecks Friday.

The partial shutdown of the government became the longest on record at midnight Friday (0500 GMT Saturday), when it overtook the 21-day stretch in 1995-1996, under president Bill Clinton.

Leaders of different sectors affected by the shutdown were attempting to reassure those that depend on government funding by unveiling shortstop policies that would allow basic services to be provided. 

National parks and museums were slated to dip into entrance fees in order to clean up, after images of overflowing trash cans at iconic sites sent social media into a frenzy earlier this month. 

However, there is more at stake than the image of the nation's heritage.

Federal courts announced earlier that they would only be fully funded until January 18th, and then switch only to "mission-critical work," according to a statement published last week.

There were also reports that many employees that are expected to work even if they're not paid - such as airport security personnel - had been increasingly calling in sick in the last week. 

It is difficult to imagine why a continued shutdown would not encourage those employees to seek other prospects. 

The Department of Agriculture announced last week that food stamps would be protected for the 38 millions US residents that rely on them, at least through February, by using a mechanism that allows for funding requests to be processed up to 30 days after the shutdown.

“Our motto here at USDA has been to ‘Do Right and Feed Everyone.’  With this solution, we’ve got the ‘Feed Everyone’ part handled.  And I believe that the plan we’ve constructed takes care of the ‘Do Right’ part as well,” said Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue in a statement.

But some were voicing concerns regarding lesser-known programs that could have deep effects on the health of the US economy.

The agricultural sector was poised to be hit, as warnings came in that the USDA was no longer providing loans and support, and stopped publishing of information crucial to individual farmers' economic decisions. 

"After one of the toughest years in recent history, this government shutdown is the last thing farmers needed," said nonprofit organization Farm Aid. 

Different departments have the authority to organize themselves as they see fit to deal with the lack of funding.

There is quite a lot that can be done, especially as funding is still available for essential services, and that departments can, to a certain extent, define themselves what these are.

This could potentially make it harder to find a resolution to the deadlock, however, as less pain means less political pressure on the two camps to negotiate.

Gillian HANDYSIDE (AFP)

National emergency... not yet

Trump on Friday backed off a series of previous threats to end the deadlock by declaring a national emergency and attempting to secure the funds without congressional approval.

"I'm not going to do it so fast," he said at a White House meeting.

Trump described an emergency declaration as the "easy way out" and said Congress had to step up to the responsibility of approving the $5.7 billion.

"If they can't do it... I will declare a national emergency. I have the absolute right," he insisted.

Until now, Trump had suggested numerous times that he was getting closer to taking the controversial decision.


Only minutes earlier, powerful Republican ally Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted after talks with Trump: "Mr. President, declare a national emergency NOW."

It was not clear what made Trump change course.

But Trump himself acknowledged in the White House meeting that an attempt to claim emergency powers would likely end up in legal battles going all the way to the Supreme Court.

Opponents say that a unilateral move by the president over the sensitive border issue would be constitutional overreach and set a dangerous precedent in similar controversies.

                 

'Under siege'

The standoff has turned into a test of political ego, particularly for Trump, who came into office boasting of his deal making powers and making an aggressive border policy the keystone of his nationalist agenda.

Democrats, meanwhile, seem determined at all costs to prevent a president who relishes campaign rally chants of "build the wall!" from getting a win.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the US-Mexican frontier presents major challenges, ranging from the hyper-violent Mexican drug trade to the plight of asylum seekers and poor migrants seeking new lives in the world's richest country.

There's also little debate that border walls are needed: about a third of the frontier is already fenced off.

Guillermo Arias (AFP)

But Trump has turned his single-minded push for more walls into a political crusade seen by opponents as a stunt to stoke xenophobia in his right-wing voter base, while wilfully ignoring the border's complex realities.

For Trump, who visited the Texas border with Mexico on Thursday, the border situation amounts to an invasion by criminals that can only be solved by more walls.

"We have a country that's under siege," he told the local officials in the White House.

Some studies show that illegal immigrants generally commit fewer crimes than people born in the United States, although not everyone agrees on this.

More certain is that while narcotics do enter the country across remote sections of the border, most are sneaked through heavily guarded checkpoints in vehicles, the government's own Drug Enforcement Administration said in a 2017 report.

It said that most smuggling is done "through US ports of entry (POEs) in passenger vehicles with concealed compartments or commingled with legitimate goods on tractor trailers."

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives and a key figure in opposing Trump's agenda, said money should be spent in many areas of border security, but not on walls.

"We need to look at the facts," she said.

But Trump accused the Democrats of only wanting to score points against him with a view to the 2020 presidential elections.

"They think, 'Gee, we can hurt Trump,'" he said. "The Democrats are just following politics."

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