As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history enters its 26th day, Yale professors criticized President Donald Trump’s insistence on building a southern border wall and lamented the shutdown’s effects on the economy and federal workers.
Following the publication of op-eds by several Yale faculty members in national outlets, the News interviewed five professors of political science, law and management about their thoughts on the continued partial shutdown. Some faculty members questioned the need for a wall along the southern border — the policy debate at the center of the shutdown — which they say may not be an effective measure to lower illegal immigration. Others condemned the actions of the president and Congress, and offered projections for how and when the shutdown will end.
“He’s between a rock and a hard place politically,” said political science professor Ian Shapiro. “The Democrats are blaming the Republicans and Trump and don’t support building the wall, but … if he backs down, he’ll be in deep trouble with his base.”
The government entered into a partial shutdown after lawmakers on Capitol Hill failed to agree on a budget for the new fiscal year by Dec. 21. Last week, the shutdown officially became the longest in U.S. history, surpassing the 21-day shutdown that occurred under former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, which cost the government a total of 400 million dollars. The current shutdown directly affects 800,000 federal employees and contractors employed by the federal government, all currently going unpaid.
While the government toils with options for reopening, Shapiro predicted that the Democrats will not back down on their opposition, thus forcing the president to declare a national emergency to attain funding for his wall, which would allow him to allocate military funds to constructing the wall. Shapiro said that if Trump does so, his decision will likely be challenged in the courts as a question of presidential power overreach.
In a Jan. 5 op-ed for The New York Times, Yale professor of law and political science Bruce Ackerman LAW ’67 posited that declaring an emergency and allocating military funds and personnel for its construction would be illegal because “the American constitutional tradition has profoundly opposed the president’s use of the military to enforce domestic law.” Beyond that, Ackerman wrote, any service members involved with the wall’s construction would be committing a federal crime.
Still, in a Jan. 8 piece for Slate, Yale law professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00 remained unconvinced that declaring an emergency to build the wall would clearly violate the law.
“Declaring a national emergency to build the president’s ridiculous wall would be a national embarrassment,” Witt wrote. “It ought to be unlawful too. But whether declaring a national emergency to build a wall actually is unlawful under current circumstances turns out to be a much closer question than it should be.”
Shapiro said that the wall itself was not a strong policy measure, calling it “just a big sideshow,” adding that illegal immigration has been on the decline for decades. Yet, political science and philosophy professor Steven Smith said that while he was unsure if the wall would be an effective form of border security, it is “clearly Trump’s signature policy — it’s what he ran on and what his supporters want to hear.” As a result, the president “is throwing a tantrum” unparalleled by that of any other American president, according to Smith.
On the other hand, Owen Fiss, professor emeritus of law, said that he saw “the petulance of Trump” as just one of two problems involved with the government shutdown and its persistence. He said that the shutdown — much like the recent confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 to the Supreme Court — has also “exposed the weaknesses of the Senate as an institution.” Fiss explained that he believes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unwillingness to allow a vote on House resolutions is evidence of the Senate’s “non-democratic character.”
“As much as you want to criticize Trump for holding out the way that he does, there is equal responsibility on the Senate and its leader Mitch McConnell,” Fiss said. “It’s not just a question of the Senate lacking the gumption to stand up to Trump, but it’s interfering with the democratic process, and that adds to the problem.”
School of Management professor Barry Nalebuff, who specializes in negotiations and strategy, told the News that for a party to effectively negotiate, it must offer the other side something that is valuable to the other side, but cheap for the party. However, Nalebuff said, Trump is too insistent on “getting [his] way and giving nothing” in exchange for the border wall.
Fiss said that he thinks the government will reopen “within the next few weeks,” given the shutdown’s effects on the nation’s economy and the possibility of public demonstrations in Washington by unhappy citizens. While federal workers have already experienced direct effects of the shutdown due to lack of pay, Fiss explained, the broader impact of the shutdown on the economy as a whole is just beginning to make headlines. These effects are likely to motivate Republicans in the Senate to look for a way to reopen the government soon, he said.
“Once the ripple effect is felt in the economy, I think [the government will] confront enormous, enormous pressure,” Fiss said.
The government has been shut down 21 times since 1976.
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