Floor Statement Of Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy On The 24th Day Of The Trump Shutdown

We have entered the 24th day of the Trump Shutdown.  For twenty-four days, hundreds of thousands of federal workers have lived with the uncertainty of when they will get their next paycheck.  And for twenty-four days, nine federal departments and dozens of agencies have been closed for business—withholding vital services to millions of Americans who paid taxes to support those services. 

It has now become the longest government shutdown in history.  We are the most powerful country in the world, and our government is being held hostage to the whims of an undisciplined President who is proud of his shutdown and who shows no concern for the chaos he is causing. 

He seems not to care that the Food and Drug Administration has stopped inspecting seafood, fruits, and vegetables, leaving Americans at risk of eating tainted food.  He seems not to care that the Environmental Protection Agency has stopped inspections of chemical factories, water treatment plants, and other industrial sites, leaving our country vulnerable to dangerous pollutants seeping into the air we breathe and the water we drink.

He seems not to care that over 800,000 dedicated federal workers have gone without a paycheck this month.  As a result, across this nation, hundreds of thousands of families are wondering how to pay their bills and put food on the table. 

Just a few days ago, the President’s own chief economic advisor went on national television and said furloughed workers were “better off” under the shutdown because they don’t have to use up vacation days for the time off they are being forced to take.  Is he kidding me?  Is this a joke to them?  Talk about being out of touch. 

I hear from Vermonters everyday about the impact the shutdown is having on their lives and none of them are “better off.”  The other day I heard from a single mother who works at the Department of Homeland Security in Vermont.  She has been working without pay since December 22nd when the Trump Shutdown began, and it is taking a toll. 

She writes, “I love my job and country but I do have a child to feed and bills to pay.  I have been working a second job to get some money coming in but when you are working full-time and have a family to care for, there are only so many extra hours you can work.”     

I heard from a mother who is worried about her daughter.  Her daughter works for the U.S. Institute for Peace and is furloughed.  She just missed her first paycheck and is unable to pay her bills and student loans. She dedicates her life to combatting terrorism, and now not only is she unable to do her job, she is getting into financial trouble.  Her mother is worried, as any mom would be, but does not have the financial resources to help her daughter. 

And then there is the story of Anthony Morselli, a TSA Agent who works at the Burlington Airport.  The Burlington Free Press recently reported that he was forced to start a GoFundMe page to raise money to help his family pay the bills during the shutdown.  His wife is also a TSA agent and they are both working without pay during the shutdown—a double hit—and they have two children to support.  He points out what everyone but the President seems to understand.  Mr. Morselli says, “To see a zero balance in your bank account really hurts.  Some of us live paycheck to paycheck. Today would be payday and no money’s coming in.” 

Another Vermonter called in who also works for the Department of Homeland Security in Vermont.  He says he only has a month’s worth of money available in his savings account.  He is fearful of running out of money.  He has a mortgage to pay and the bills are piling up.  He is scared.  He says he wants to keep his job, but this shutdown is beyond reason.  He says he does not feel valued by this White House, and points out that while the President says he wants “border protection” he is actually harming the people who protect our borders.  I couldn’t agree with him more. 

Last week, the Senate and the House passed a bill to ensure all federal workers will get back pay as soon as the shutdown is over.  I was a cosponsor of that bill, and I am glad to hear that the President has agreed to sign it.  It is the least he can do considering he caused this mess.  But while this bill offers assurance to federal employees that they will eventually get their paycheck, it does not help them now.  It does not help the people who are calling my office – the TSA agents, the DHS employees, or the State Department employees - whose bills are due now.  And the President has threatened that his shutdown could last months or years. This is untenable. 

The President says this is about border security.  You could have fooled me.  The examples I just talked about all involve dedicated federal employees working to keep this country safe.  They are proud of the work they do and the service they perform for their country.  And they are all caught in the crosshairs of the Trump Shutdown.

The Trump Shutdown is not about border security.  It is about fulfilling a cynical campaign rally chant the President made to spin up his base.  But Congress is a coequal branch of government.  We are not in the business of throwing taxpayer dollars around to build monuments to Presidential egos.  The $5.7 billion dollar wall he wants to build is a waste of taxpayer money, and it will not address the immigration challenges in this country. 

The President has manufactured a sense of urgency on the southern border solely to generate support for his ridiculous wall.  The President likes to spin up his base by talking about an “invasion” of illegal immigrants, but this does not comport with reality.  Apprehensions at the Southwest border have dropped 75 percent since 2000, and more people are here in this country illegally because they over stayed their visas, not because they snuck across the border. 

We all support border security, but we need to invest in smart border security—not spend billions of tax payer dollars on a 30-foot wall that determined people can go over, through or under.   

The President is now asserting that Democrats are for open borders.  This is nonsense.  In Fiscal Year 2018, Democrats supported $21.1 billion in direct appropriations for border security and immigration enforcement. This followed a similar amount in FY 2017.  This funding supports investments at our northern and southern borders and helps stop the flow of dangerous drugs, like opioids, fentanyl, and methamphetamines.  It targets money to where it is needed.  

It pays for 19,500 Border Patrol Agents nationwide, including roughly 16,500 on the southern border.  It pays for 23,500 Customs Officers at our ports of entry, including 6,815 Officers assigned to Southwest border ports of entry.  The number of agents and officers we have are at record highs, even though illegal border crossings are at the lowest levels we have seen since 1971. 

Last year, Democrats and Republicans even agreed upon $1.7 billion in targeted border security investments.  This included over $1 billion to be used between the ports of entries for improved facilities, tactical communications equipment, additional air assets, integrated fixed towers, video surveillance systems, ground detection systems, tactical aerostats, and money for countering cross-border tunnel threats.

It also included $580 million for security at our ports of entry by increasing funds for intelligence capabilities at the national targeting center, non-intrusive inspection equipment to detect illicit contraband, and opioid testing equipment.  Additionally, we provided $615 million in foreign assistance to help address the root causes of migration in Central America.  

These are investments we can all agree on.  This is how you protect our borders.  Not by building a 30-foot wall.  This shutdown is not about border security.  It is about the President’s own ego and it has to end. 

The Republican Leader continues to bring up S.1, a bill that has nothing to do with funding the government or border security.  Rather than voting on appropriations bills to put Americans back to work, S.1 authorizes more than $800 million this year alone for Israeli defense contractors as part of $38 billion for Israel over the next ten years. 

It also includes the boycott, divestment, sanctions legislation that would violate the First Amendment and cede federal authority over matters of foreign policy to local and state governments.  The right to boycott is fundamental.  It dates back to the U.S. civil rights movement, and it is not for the government to pick and choose which boycotts citizens should support or oppose.

We have bipartisan bills before us that could reopen the government, and that should be our focus.  It is time for Republicans to stand up to the President and put a stop to this madness, otherwise this shutdown is as much on them as it is on the President.  I implore Leader McConnell to bring up H.R. 21 and H.J. Res. 1 and send them to the President.  We could pass them with a veto proof majority.  Congress is a coequal branch of government, and we should start acting like it. 

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