The government shutdown that left 800,000 without a paycheck tells us nothing about our country’s differences over immigration reform and everything about our government’s inability to deal with the easy stuff. While the leaders of both political parties have tried to place blame for their collective failure at the feet of the other, Americans are smarter than that. We know the embarrassment of the last month is not about 215 miles of steel fencing but instead about systemic failure in Washington, D.C.
Over 80 percent of Americans are against mass deportation and believe those who arrived here illegally should have a path to legal status. More than 70 percent want stricter enforcement of immigration laws and more secure borders. And nearly all favor severe penalties for U.S. employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Against this backdrop, our Republican and Democratic leaders couldn’t sort out 215 miles of metal. Given that fiasco, how can they have any shot at addressing our failing public and private pension system, a bankrupt Social Security program, or a health care structure that leaves one out of four Americans unable to afford even their prescription drugs?
Vice President Pence correctly suggested in December that the two political parties split the difference on the president’s request. The stakes were not that high. We still have 140 miles of authorized fencing we haven’t gotten around to building from earlier spending bills, and the 215 miles requested by President Trump will take an estimated six years to construct. But lately, brinkmanship seems to be more in fashion than statesmanship. Instead of a sensible compromise, our politicians argued over how to spend $6 billion. Meanwhile, the shutdown cost the American economy four times that.
There is a distinction between a willingness to agree and a willingness to work together — something Vice President Pence clearly recognized. We’ve always had our disagreements — that is part of the color and magic of America. We never had to forsake our differing opinions and passions to pull ourselves out of a Great Depression, build dams and bridges, educate millions of returning GIs, eradicate measles and polio, contain communism and expand the vote to all Americans. We can have our own personal and family histories, hold views separate from our neighbor, worship who we choose, and nonetheless work together — because it is only through civilized debate that we are stronger and wiser as a nation. That is precisely why we have three co-equal branches of government, two legislative chambers and a system of “checks and balances.” Our form of democracy requires compromise by design, or put another way, the U.S. Constitution forces us to get along. The Founding Fathers wisely understood that while messy and frustrating at times, it is a wiser form of government than the alternative, something the hyper-partisans in both parties have carelessly forgotten.
The lesson from the last month is not that Americans are split on immigration reform but that our political leaders have failed. Our message to them should not be to build or not build a wall on the southern border, but instead to tear down the wall that separates them from each other and return to the people’s business.