The Department of Homeland Security Funding Impasse: an assessment



News from the United States has been dominated by the potential shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Principally motivated by President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, congressional Republicans have sought to use their control on DHS funding to demonstrate their disapproval. However, with only days before the January 27th funding deadline and with no end in sight, the obvious questions to ask is “how did this happen?” and “what now?” The answers are hardly simple or assuring.

What motivated the Republican Party?

While at the core of republican motivations are President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, the actions also tug at other major concerns.

The first is long-term concern of executive power vis-à-vis the legislature. Whenever in opposition to a sitting President but in control of Congress, Republicans and Democrats disapprove of executive action. As executive action bypasses congressional consultation and scrutiny, they are seen to lack legitimate legislative authority and treated as examples of executive over-reach or, at the worst of times, abuse of executive privilege.

The second is the immediate political impact of the President’s executive actions. For many congressional Republicans, President Obama has placed them in a compromising position. In a single move, he has started the political calendar on his terms: scuttling prospective legislative agendas and making the wedge issue of immigration reform the issue.

Third and final is the rebound in presidential approval since the mid-term elections. In the lead up to the mid-terms, President Obama’s approval stood at about 41%. However, his approval since has even climbed to 51%. Such an improvement so soon after an election focused on presidential disapproval is likely to make Republicans keen to prove they are a viable alternative government.

How have events played out?

In understanding motivations, one can understand objectives. In this case, the Republican riders against executive action in the DHS funding bill represented much broader objectives: checking presidential authority, retaking control of the country’s short term legislative agenda, and prove competence as an alternative. However, as events unfolded, Republicans soon lost control of the narrative. Rather than demonstrate leadership, the move has been interpreted as another example of Republican Party willingness to shut down the government (if partially) to prove their point; a willingness that would even risk national security.

This has not been helped by public displays of disunity among senior Republican leaders. Of particular note have been the disagreements between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner. These events paint an unfortunate picture: a Republican Party that is fractured and without the discipline that, only months earlier, helped achieve electoral victory.

Where to from here?

Since failing to pass the House of Representative’s version of the DHS bill in the Senate, Senator McConnell has changed tactics. Though agreeing to vote on a funding bill without riders, it would be contingent on allowing a second vote for legislation that blocks the president’s executive actions. Given the circumstances, Democratic Senators are unlikely to agree to this condition.

Regardless of whether funding is secured through a continuing resolution or an 11th hour agreement, the drama and embarrassment of recent events will hurt the Republicans. 2015 will be a critical year for US politics, its events shaping the political landscape for the upcoming 2016 presidential election. That is not to say Republican will not be precluded from establishing credibility with the electorate in coming months, but these events will definitely make the task more difficult.

Andrew Yong Chang Kwon is the United States Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au for more information.

Image Credit: The US Army (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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