Building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was Donald Trump’s signature campaign promise. He’s running out of chances to keep it.
Trump has been president for nearly two years, but we are still waiting to see construction begin on even part of the roughly 1,000 miles of border wall he pledged to voters. Congress, the body responsible for coming up with the money, has repeatedly ignored the president on this issue, made excuses, or outright blocked him from initiating the project. But, for whatever reason, the president continues to believe their promises that they’ll “get to it.”
Their record on “getting to it” is weak. The last time Congress “got to it” was in March, approving $1.6 billion toward the wall, far short of the $25 billion that the president requested. Trump assented, calling the $1.6 billion a “down payment” on future action. The problem is, it isn’t a down payment. It’s a head fake. Yes, the money goes toward construction at the border, but it is strictly limited to existing infrastructure. Funding for construction on Trump’s border wall prototypes is specifically prohibited.
Somehow, this continues to escape Trump’s notice.
A Frustrating Political Game
In fact, the president has accepted the brush off from Congress and agreed to wait to address the immigration issue until after November’s midterm elections. In June, he tweeted: “Republicans should stop wasting their time on immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November.” Democrats, he said, were “just playing games . . . We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”
Last week, however, it seemed like Trump was starting to catch on to the congressional game of hide the ball. As negotiations over the latest spending bill solidified, Trump vented his frustration with the fact that the bill would not address immigration at all, tweeting: “I want to know, where is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this ridiculous Spending Bill, and where will it come from after the Midterms!”
Yet, when the bill landed on this desk this week, he signed it without any hesitation, or even the passing threat of a veto, despite plenty of reasons to upend it.
The lame duck session in November and December now increasingly represents Trump’s last, great hope for the wall. For one thing, it’s an open question as to whether Trump’s “Red Wave” will materialize. Recent generic ballot polls gave Democrats a seven-point advantage, and Nate Silver’s forecast has a better than 80 percent likelihood of the Democrats taking the House.
It goes without saying that a Democrat-led House would have nothing to do with funding President Trump’s priorities. But even if the GOP can hang on to a slim congressional majority, does anyone really think the Republicans will gain enough seats to pass difficult legislation without settling their internal battles over the question?
Authority Already Exists
Fact is, Congress could already be funding this wall if it wanted to, with the majorities Republicans already have. They had opportunities on the spending bill in March, and in the one they most recently passed. The 2006 Secure Fence Act—which key Democrats voted for—gives Congress all the authority it needs to start construction on the border. Moreover, the REAL ID Act of 2005 gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to “waive all legal requirements” that get in the way, including the pesky environmental reviews that hold up construction for years, sometimes decades.
Congress has the same authority and the resources to build the wall now as they did in 2005, 2006, 2010, 2016 and on the day President Trump was sworn into office. They haven’t, because they don’t want to.
The only way a wall will ever be built is with determined presidential leadership—the kind that uses the power of the veto, that demands tough negotiation, that stops taking congressional promises and excuses at face value, and refuses to settle for anything less than he promised.
Passing the wall in the lame duck session, in particular, would require a committed resolve and pluck from the president. The lame duck is a tough set of circumstances: many members of Congress are retiring or have just lost an election, and are no longer bound by accountability to the voters or swayed by the favors of presidents. Democrats will no doubt complicate the issue by demanding amnesty for DACA recipients and Dreamers, additional guest workers, and policies about family separation.
Republicans cannot take the bait on this menu of issues, as they did earlier this year, and allow the clarity of the president’s promise to morph into something resembling comprehensive immigration reform. Neither should congressional Republicans nor the president sell out the wall for an amnesty giveaway.
Should the White House and Congress stand firm on the issue, they would have the support of their base. Immigration still tops the list of issues Americans care about. 73 percent of Republican voters support a border wall, and support is growing among all likely voters.
Tough talk, impatience with excuses, and follow through will be required from the White House to keep that base energized and supportive. Trump has these qualities in spades but has been curiously unwilling to use them on Congress. If Trump wants his wall, there is no time like the present to demand it.
Photo Credit: Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)