Newsletter: The pointless shutdown that lasted way too long

President Trump delivers remarks about a deal to reopen the federal government at the White House on Friday.
President Trump delivers remarks about a deal to reopen the federal government at the White House on Friday.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA )

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

Take this as either a glimmer of hope from Washington or a sad reminder of how far our standards for success in politics have fallen: The United States now boasts a fully functioning federal government, something it could not do for more than a month before Friday.

Although the 13th Amendment banned slavery or any other form of involuntarily servitude in this country, on Friday it looked as if hundreds of thousands of federal workers were going to miss their second paycheck despite being forced to perform their “essential” duties. But seemingly out of nowhere Friday, the president announced his acceptance of a deal that is remarkably similar to one he rejected just weeks prior — a continuing resolution to fund the government for three more weeks that does not include money for a border wall — and the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended (at least for now).

The futility of President Trump’s obstinance on the border wall is made all the more depressing by the fact that this president has only worsened America’s broken immigration system, and a physical barrier on the U.S. border with Mexico will not fix that. As the L.A. Times’ editorial board wrote in its shutdown post-mortem:

The president sought to present himself Friday as the soul of reasonableness, saying he was looking to build the wall only “in predetermined high-risk locations that have been specifically identified by the Border Patrol to stop illicit flows of people and drugs.” Yet he continued to portray the wall as a magical crime-fighting solution while painting a hyperbolic picture of criminals and terrorists pouring over the southern border.

The debate can’t be grounded in scare tactics. Walls and fences make sense in places, and the border already has nearly 700 miles of them. Does it need more? Do we need more electronic surveillance? More agents? Let's base those answers on sound professional assessments adapting to the changing situation along the border — where illegal crossings are way below modern peaks despite the recent increase in Central American migrants — not on the president’s reflexive resistance to immigration and his cynical fanning of passions among immigration hard-liners.

The immigration system, on the other hand, has been undeniably broken for years, and Trump has remarkably managed to make it even worse. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, the backlog in the immigration courts has more than doubled under Trump, if you include the more than 300,000 previously closed cases that this administration has reopened. But there are many interlocking and complex issues to be resolved, including whether to change the country’s priorities in determining who gets visas, how to accommodate the need for seasonal workers and what to do about the estimated 11 million people already living in the country illegally, including the “Dreamers” who arrived as minors and in many cases have been raised as Americans.

Trump has sought to draw some of those issues into the negotiations over the wall, among them his contentious proposal to bar minors who come to the United States from seeking asylum. It’s hard to see how lawmakers could reach agreement on all these issues in three weeks; what’s needed is a comprehensive approach to the web of immigration issues, and Congress has yet to prove itself up to that job despite years of trying. Trump can and should hold lawmakers’ feet to the fire on the need for immigration reform. But that’s a far bigger job than building a wall, and he must not take the government hostage to try to force the outcome he desires.

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Federal employees arguably ended this shutdown when flights at LaGuardia Airport in New York ground to halt Friday morning because of work stoppages, notes Jon Healey. It’s insane that Americans tolerate a government system that only punishes taxpayers and federal workers when legislators fail to do their only real job, which is to fund essential services. Healey writes: “Maybe the threat of chaos is what we need to get the president and Congress to do their jobs.” L.A. Times

Parts of the federal government shut down, but terrorism did not — and neither did the U.S. foreign service workers who were recently affected by it, writes former diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford. On Jan. 15, an American was among the 21 people killed in a terrorist attack in Nairobi, Kenya, and embassy workers stayed on the job day and night to gather information and assist U.S. nationals. Their work deserves respect, praise and, most importantly, a dependable paycheck. L.A. Times

Prepare to read a lot of positive coverage of a politician we’ve known in California for a while. In the New York Times, op-ed columnist David Leonhardt declares Sen. Kamala Harris as the early Democratic front-runner for 2020 because “she has a fascinating personal story, and she has handled the national spotlight well in her first two years in the Senate” (some of our readers would take issue with that latter judgment). Separately in The Times, Michelle Goldberg delights in the possibility that a woman will once again face off against Trump (and hopefully beat him).

The Trump White House was caught lying about the president’s size. Big deal, you might think, because fibbing about one’s weight is every American’s God-given right, and compared to other Trump untruths, this rates merely as personally embarrassing for the president. But you should think a little more, writes Scott Martelle, because “that the administration lies about such a small matter evidences just what a petty regime this is.” L.A. Times

A charter teacher changes her mind about charter schools. Riley McDonald Vaca notes that her husband teaches in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but she had not given much thought before the LAUSD strike to the relationship between charter campuses like her own and traditional public schools. She concludes: “I would urge Angelenos considering their education options to hold this thought: The schools you judge not good enough for your children or grandchildren or nieces and nephews aren’t good enough for any child.” L.A. Times