Senate Floor Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Impact Of The Government Shutdown On U.S. National Security And Global Leadership

Mr. LEAHY.  It is now day 19 of the Trump Shutdown.  Nineteen days that the federal government of the oldest democracy and the world’s only superpower has been functioning on only half of its cylinders. 

I have spoken multiple times about the devastating impact this reckless and unnecessary shutdown is having on the federal workforce at domestic departments and agencies – departments like Homeland Security, Agriculture, Transportation, Justice, Interior, and Commerce.  Agencies like Customs and Border Patrol, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the National Park Service.

These departments and agencies have furloughed and stopped paying hundreds of thousands of employees who, as a result, are idle and no longer able to do the jobs that millions and millions of Americans depend on.  Hundreds of thousands more are working without pay until the shutdown ends.

The President, a billionaire who has never had to worry about not being able to pay the rent, says he can relate.  If he actually believes that, he is alone.

Programs are on hold and contracts are being cancelled, for which the federal government is liable for penalties.  Government shutdowns don’t save money, they cost billions of dollars and have lasting consequences.  And who pays?  American taxpayers.

This is a disgrace.  And it is made even more so by the fact that it is entirely avoidable were it not for the intransigence, indifference, and obsession of one person, President Donald Trump. 

An obsession not with border security – we are all for that and there is more than a billion dollars in prior appropriations for border security waiting to be spent.  In fact, we have offered another $1.3 billion for fiscal year 2019.  The White House never says anything about that.

No, the President’s myopic obsession – repeated on national television last night – is with building a 30 foot high wall – mostly on desolate land that the government will have to seize from private owners – along our southern border.  The price tag to U.S. taxpayers would be at least $18 billion and likely more, a price tag that at campaign rally after campaign rally he promised Mexico would pay.

There are multiple reasons why that is a terrible idea, why it won’t stop illegal migration, why it won’t stop illicit drugs, and why it would be a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars, which I have discussed before and will again.

But today I want to speak briefly about the impact the Trump Shutdown is having not on the federal government’s domestic programs and workforce, but its impact on U.S. national security and global leadership.  

It is worth asking:  what made the United States the world’s superpower and a global leader in the first place?

Of course, one reason is our superior armed forces.  That, I suspect is the answer President Trump would give.  But he would be only partly correct.

Even more important are the ideals enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, our democratic institutions and coequal branches of government, our diverse citizenry, and our regional and global alliances and partnerships.  Without these, our men and women in uniform would have precious little to defend.

Today, the global supremacy and influence of the United States are being challenged like no time since the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.  Why?  One need look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since his first days in office, President Trump has disparaged longstanding friends and allies.  He has withdrawn from international agreements negotiated by past Republican and Democratic administrations, announced plans to withdraw from a key nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and proposed drastic cuts to the operations and programs of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which implement foreign policy.

And now the State Department, like other federal departments and agencies, is swept up in the Trump Shutdown.

Our choices are obvious:

We can engage with the world by affirming our commitment to our ideals, by continuing to strengthen our democratic institutions, by empowering our diplomats and by expanding our global alliances and partnerships.

Or we can withdraw, even to the point of shutting down the federal government, cede the global stage to others whose interests are often adverse to our own, and become the captives of simplistic campaign slogans, xenophobic anti-migrant hysteria, and a manufactured national security emergency.

The President said the country needed a “good” shutdown.  He said that.  A “good” shutdown.  There is no such thing.

He said he would be “proud” to take the “mantle of blame” for shutting down the government.  Then the next day he blamed Democrats, rejecting out of hand our proposal to pass the six appropriations bills that already received overwhelming bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Most of those bills have nothing to do with border security.  But the President is obstinately holding hostage thousands of federal programs funded in those bills, including the paychecks for the people who implement them, which harms all Americans.

With a stroke of a pen the President could reopen the government and continue negotiations on border security.  Yet he refuses, and instead he flippantly said the shutdown could last “months” or even “years”.

What has this reckless abuse of executive power meant for our standing in the world?  What has it meant for our diplomats at the State Department and in our embassies overseas whose job is to protect our global interests, to maintain our alliances and partnerships, to assist the millions of Americans working, studying and serving overseas, and to protect our security?

As of yesterday, 34 percent – more than one-third – of U.S. direct hire State Department employees in Washington and at our embassies around the world have been furloughed.  That is nearly 10,000 employees at the State Department alone who are unable to do their jobs.  Others are working without pay.

If the shutdown continues, more paychecks will be withheld, the number of furloughed employees will increase, and there will be a parallel shutting down of diplomacy, of programs, of contracts, and of our ability to engage with both allies and adversaries.

The effects are far reaching.

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security will run short of funds, forcing the State Department to deplete resources used to keep other programs operating order to protect our diplomats and facilities overseas, or eventually relying on unpaid contractors to do the job.

Roughly 85 percent of the employees of the State Department’s Office of Inspector General have already been furloughed.  Oversight of waste, fraud and abuse has virtually ground to a halt.

Vietnam, a country of nearly 100 million people bordering China, is becoming a key security partner in the Pacific region.  Yet thanks to the Trump Shutdown, key employees at our embassy and USAID mission in Hanoi were furloughed.  The American flag is flying and the lights are on, but that is about it.

This is illustrative of what is happening in every region of the world, and it does not take a lot of imagination to predict the consequences of a longer shutdown.

For example, the State Department and U.S. embassies regularly use their social media accounts to update Americans overseas of important developments that potentially threaten their safety.  This was the case during the recent tsunami in Indonesia.  How will the State Department respond to the next natural disaster when its social media accounts – tools that are relied on increasingly in today’s world – have fallen silent?

What about the loss of U.S. influence on the world stage? With most official travel suspended, how do we ensure that our priorities are protected at the next trade, arms control, or international health summit?

What do you suppose the leaders of China, Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea—not to mention allies like Great Britain, Canada, and Japan – think about this?

If I were President Putin, or President Xi Jinping, or Ayatollah Khamenei, I would be celebrating.  What could be better than U.S. embassies operating on life support and U.S. diplomats sidelined, while the U.S. government is shut down over building a wall across the southwest desert?

Does President Trump think the rest of the world will sit idly by, waiting until the U.S. government reopens?  The opposite will happen.  They will take full advantage in ways that will not be short lived.

While massive humanitarian crises imperil the lives of millions of people in Yemen, Syria, Burma, Venezuela, and Central Africa, the White House is embracing a diminishing role for the United States. 

While Russia meddles in our elections and expands its influence in the Middle East, while China buys the allegiance of countries in Africa, Asia, and our own hemisphere by investing billions in ports, energy and transportation projects, the State Department is shutting down programs and sending its people home.

And it is not just the State Department.  USAID, the Peace Corps, the Millennium Challenge Corporation – they are all furloughing personnel and cancelling new activities.    

With the exception of the U.S. military, if this drags on the United States will be a superpower in name only.  An exaggeration?  Don’t bet on it. 

While our diplomats are furloughed, rather than use the funds Congress already provided for border security that remain unspent, the President has threatened to ignore the legislative process, declare a national emergency where none exists, and order the Pentagon to pay for the wall that he swore Mexico would pay for. 

Such a flagrant, unwarranted misuse of authority and circumvention of the democratic process would be immediately challenged by Congress and in the courts. 
But regardless of the outcome, what would it say about our commitment to democracy around the world?  How would it be perceived outside this country, particularly by autocrats in Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, Russia, Hungary, Poland, or China?

It would be welcomed as a green light for declaring a state of emergency and wielding unchecked executive power – without regard for the legislature or judiciary – as a pretext to do virtually anything.  Shut down the independent press.  Arrest judges and opposition political leaders.  Use the army to police the streets.  Close the borders.  All in the name of a manufactured national emergency.

This is already happening.  In Guatemala, which purports to be a democracy, President Morales is openly defying rulings by Constitutional Court magistrates who are courageously defending the institutions of justice that are under assault, and the police are ignoring orders of the Attorney General.

In Egypt, President al Sisi has locked up tens of thousands of political opponents and other dissidents.  In Turkey, President Erdogan has done the same.  President Trump has praised both leaders.

In Brazil, President Bolsonaro, a former military officer, has vowed to open up the Amazon to mining, logging, and agribusiness.  He wants to give the police a free hand to use lethal force with impunity.  He is gearing up to crack down on civil liberties.  The White House has applauded.

No one disputes that the United States has experienced national emergencies, when we faced a potentially existential threat.  Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks are obvious examples.  The Cuban missile crisis could have been.

A future deadly disease pandemic that infects thousands of Americans and rapidly spreads out of control might qualify.

The President talks as if the sky is falling in Texas, but any rational person recognizes that the situation on our southwest border is not remotely a national emergency.  To call Central American families fleeing poverty and violence a threat to the security of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful country, is an embarrassment. 

Especially when the Border Patrol’s own data shows the number of migrants apprehended at the southern border has plummeted over the past ten years.

The White House, grasping for arguments to justify the President’s broken campaign promise that Mexico would pay for his wall, has played fast and loose with the facts in a desperate attempt to incite fear among the American people.

The President and Vice President have shamelessly trumpeted all kinds of wildly inaccurate and grossly misleading statistics about migrants, terrorists, asylum applicants, unaccompanied children, and illegal drugs that are contradicted by their own agencies.

The White House says thousands of migrant terrorists have been apprehended, falsely suggesting they were stopped at the Mexican border.  Almost none of them were.

We face a far more serious threat from al Qaeda and ISIS using social media to inspire extremists already in the U.S. or Canada to commit terrorist acts.  The last thing anyone would do who is genuinely concerned about terrorism is shut down the government and withhold funding from the very agencies whose job it is to track down and arrest those people.

The real threat to our national security is shutting down the government.  Furloughing 10,000 State Department employees.  Telling our embassies to cancel programs and our diplomats to stay home.

While we come to grips with practical ways of strengthening our borders so we can more humanely and efficiently process migrants who request asylum, which we must do, we must also stay focused on the real threats to our national security.

We need our embassies at full strength.  We need our diplomats in the room with their European, Russian, Chinese, South Korean, Central American, Middle Eastern, and African counterparts.

We need to strengthen NATO and our other alliances, so we can rely on our allies and partners to support us in responding to real national emergencies.

We need to expand our cyber security, nonproliferation, international broadcasting and other public diplomacy and Internet freedom programs, military education and training, maritime security, law enforcement, and other international assistance programs.  Instead, because of the President’s obsession with the wall, these and other State Department programs are stuck in neutral, and the people who implement them are at home.

We need to act like a superpower at the United Nations, in NATO, and in the many other regional organizations where decisions are made that directly affect our interests and our security.

None of this is possible during a government shutdown – a shutdown that with each passing day erodes our democracy, weakens our global leadership, and threatens our security. 

We all know this.  The American people know this.  The world knows this.  The President needs to reopen the government and start acting like the defender of the Constitution and of our national security that the country needs. 

I again urge the Republican leader to let us vote on the bipartisan, six-bill minibus, and when it passes he and the entire Republican caucus should urge the President to sign it. 

That is our job, as an independent, coequal branch of government:  to vote, to appropriate the funds so the federal government can work for the American people.  It is not our job to sit on the sidelines while the wheels of government grind to a halt because the President is recklessly holding it hostage. 

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David Carle: 202-224-3693