J. Scott Applewhite, AP
The Washington skyline is seen on day 19 of a partial government shutdown on the morning after President Donald Trump used a prime-time TV address from the Oval Office to urge congressional Democrats to relent on their opposition to his proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019.

We are currently in the midst of a governmental crisis in Washington that might lead to an even larger shutdown of our government and damage to our economy. What is amazing to me is that all this is over a mere $5 billion (barely a footnote in the federal budget). And much of this is semantics as to whether this is a wall or a fence. Many of the players in the current crisis have either voted or positioned themselves in differing ways on this issue in the past. Usually, a crisis of this size involves the total U.S. budget or some other major constitutional problem.

So why is this such a big deal? I contend that under all the rhetoric on both sides is a fundamental fact that Democrats generally can harvest more votes from an immigrant-friendly base. Republicans tend to think they will do best by keeping the current voters more stable. That is rather a crass view of this whole matter, but there has to be something much more powerful at stake here to have this sort of shutdown crisis over such a small amount of money and differences over semantics.

I had a chance to discuss the current crisis on Capitol Hill with a number of new and former members of the House and Senate. The Constitution and the laws of the United States require that congressional terms rotate at noon on Jan. 3 every two years. As a former member of both houses of Congress, I was invited to attend the swearing-in ceremonies. The scene in the U.S. Senate was filled with several very bright-looking young men and women (in their 40s and 50s) who were sworn in in the well of the Senate in groups of four. Former members stood in the back of the Senate in a circle. As I looked around, I saw a sea of ghosts of former senators I hadn’t seen in several years. (I am sure this gray-haired former senator looked just as ghostly.) After the swearing-in, the Senate dining room was the scene of new and former members greeting each other and engaging in conversation. Ours is a very complex government. I got to hear a lot of opinions of policymakers.

I then went over to the U.S. House for the swearing-in of its new members. I fondly recalled my own entry into the House in 1975. Several former U.S. House members were present and were standing in the back around the House railing. The new members of the House are much younger than those in the Senate and many had their children with them, which made for a wonderful scene. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi was sworn in, she had a group of children around her.

As I visited both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, I remembered how our Founding Fathers wanted the powers of the president limited by Congress, and I thought of the late Professor Richard Neustadt from Harvard. Neustadt emphasized the limitations of our system on the power of the president and how an effective president has to constantly negotiate with Congress and work with the courts. He pointed out that the president has the bully pulpit via the media. However, the president is fully dependent on Congress for the appropriations and the courts for favorable interpretations of what he or she is doing.

At the time of this writing, we see a great contest of wills between the president and Congress, in particular the U.S. House of Representatives. Everyone says our form of government depends on compromise, but Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and the president feel they have already made compromises. And in the crisis now, it seems to be as much a battle of semantics on whether a fence is a wall or if a wall should be concrete or made of steel. The amount of money involved is very small compared with most federal controversies. This is a mere $5 billion or $6 billion, which would not even merit a floor vote in many matters. Indeed, back when I tried to get a floor vote for less than $5 billion, it was considered a time-consuming irritant, as an amount that small should be settled in a committee or subcommittee.

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So what is really going on here? One interpretation is that the Democrats want more immigrants, as they will get more votes. The Republicans want fewer immigrants because they get more votes from stakeholder citizens already here. At least 10 U.S. Senate seats have immigrant-related margins, including states such as New York, Texas, Florida and Nevada. In the presidential race, the Democrats with the immigrant-related votes have a much better chance to win the popular vote. Future Republicans may have to target fewer immigrant-related states to win the Electoral College.

In this sense, it all comes down to crass politics. There is much idealism expressed on all sides of this issue, but nobody dares to say that the underlying invisible cause of all this is mere raw politics.

If we would admit that cruel truth, we might get to a compromise more quickly.