If you’ve ever seen the (excellent) Chris Morris film Four Lions, you will likely be familiar with some of the basic tenets of hostage situations.
Not wanting to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it, suffice to say Waj, the character responsible for the contrived hostage taking, doesn’t provide a handbook on how to negotiate your way out of such a situation. This makes it slightly disconcerting that his techniques appear to have provided the blueprint for the last week of political shenanigans in America’s corridors of power.
As in the UK, every year the American government must pass a budget to keep government services and programmes funded. In the UK the process is very simple, as the government proposes a budget and then, because the government invariably has a parliamentary majority, passes it in a vote.
In the US, the budget is proposed by the President, then passed as a bill by Congress, with potential amendments, which then has to be re-confirmed (or vetoed) by the President. The obvious problem here is that the President and the Houses of Congress can be (and regularly are) run by different parties. When these parties come to a head, and the budget is not passed, the US government shuts down.
This means that government employees are not paid, national parks and museums are closed, and non-essential government services are closed down. The last time this happened was 2013, when the Republican-controlled House of Representatives stripped the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) of funding, creating a conflict with the Democrat-controlled Senate. The impasse lasted 16 days until the Republicans, in the face of mounting public disapproval, relented and government re-opened.
On Friday, the government was once again forced into shutdown, despite Republicans controlling the Presidency and both Houses of Congress. This is because there’s an added layer of complication – any spending bill requires 60 Senators out of 100 to vote for it, any fewer and it can be filibustered, an arcane process where a Senator can ‘talk out’ a bill unless 60 of their colleagues tell them to shut up. The Republicans only have 51 Senators, so passing a budget requires Democratic support.
An issue arose over two programmes: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). DACA is designed to protect those brought illegally into the US as minors by allowing them to apply for a rolling two-year work permit (though not full citizenship rights). The programme was started under President Obama in 2012, but President Trump has said it will end in April, which could leave the 800,000 DACA recipients in the US at risk of deportation.
CHIP, as the name suggests, provides children with health insurance. Created in 1997, it was designed to provide healthcare for the estimated 14% of US children who did not have health insurance due to financial constraints. It was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and Democrats, and was regularly renewed until last year, when Congress chose to let the budget lapse.
Congressional Democrats decided that they would only support a budget if CHIP funding was renewed and a bill was passed in Congress to provide the 800,000 DACA recipients with a path to citizenship, thus preventing their deportation to countries they haven’t inhabited since they were minors. Two weeks ago, senior Democrats and Republicans took a bill to President Trump that delivered for DACA recipients, while providing additional funding to pay for border security (a compromise on Trump’s infamous wall). Trump rejected the proposal, siding with the right-wing of his party, meaning a new solution had to be found in Congress. Republicans in the House passed a short-term spending bill that included CHIP funding but no action on DACA, and this was rejected by all but 5 Democrats in the Senate (but also by 4 Senate Republicans).
Senate leader Mitch McConnell (Republican-Kentucky, pictured above) took to Twitter during the debate to suggest Democrats had to back either CHIP or DACA – the hostage situation equivalent of confirming you will shoot one hostage, the police just need to pick which one – a foolish move given that both proposals have significant backing in his own party.
— Leader McConnell (@SenateMajLdr) January 19, 2018
In the media war, Democrats simultaneously blamed Trump for not supporting the earlier bipartisan measure, and the Republicans for being unable to get a budget through a government they entirely control. Republicans blamed the Democrats, saying they were putting the lives of illegal immigrants, a term not normally applied to DACA recipients, ahead of those of sick children on CHIP.
It appeared, from the outside, that the Republicans were winning the air war, given the Democrats’ confused messaging and the GOP’s resorting to base criticism of foreigners, simultaneously politically effective and morally repugnant. Consequently, on Monday night, the Democrats reached a settlement with Republicans, funding the government until February 8th, when this whole circus recommences.
McConnell has promised a vote on a solution for DACA recipients before February 8th, which is all well and good if you are an amnesiac who can’t remember the Mitch McConnell Supreme Court scandal of 2016. It would also have to pass the House of Representatives, which could prove difficult given that Republican representatives are wary of looming elections in November and won’t want to anger their core supporters. The hostages of DACA and CHIP are safe for now, but there remain on Capitol Hill the individuals with the explosives potential to set the whole thing off again next month.