Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst, served as Deputy Independent Counsel, and later as Independent Counsel, in the investigation into allegations that the administration of George H. W. Bush violated the privacy rights of candidate Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign. He also served as a Special Counsel to Robert Mueller in the Department of Justice. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
President Donald Trump has not been able to persuade Congress that US national security requires the building of a wall at our southern border. If, however, a national emergency really exists, as the President insists, then he should take his case directly to the American people and look to other ways to pay for a wall – ways that do not require the use of pre-existing taxpayer dollars.
Our suggestion is that the President propose issuing “wall bonds,” or government-issued debt securities, to fund the wall. After all, the best measure of support for a government program is whether the public is willing to pay for the program.
The idea of selling government bonds to fund a government program is not new. In the first half of the 20th century, presidents were able to rally the public to pay for national emergency programs. During World War I and World War II, President Woodrow Wilson and President Franklin Roosevelt each undertook massive initiatives to raise the money that was needed to mobilize the troops through the issuance of bonds and imposition of higher taxes.
President Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo, sold “Liberty Loans.” And under President Roosevelt, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau launched a major campaign to sell war bonds and to persuade voters that higher taxes were necessary. “Taxes to Beat the Axis,” Treasury said.
Millions of Americans bought war bonds during both campaigns, with many convinced by the Presidents that the mission was worthwhile. “Save to Win” read the cover of a $25 war bond that low-income Americans could invest in by purchasing 25 cent stamps. And “The Treasury Star Parade,” the Treasury’s variety show, employed musical stars to promote war bonds.
Trump has never asked his supporters to sacrifice anything to build a wall. Instead, during the campaign, he promised that Mexico would pay for the wall, even though the Mexican government stated clearly that it had no such intention. In December, Trump claimed that the wall somehow would pay for itself through indirect savings, as a result of the yet-to-be-ratified new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. No data is available to support his claim.
Recently, an Iraq War veteran named Brian Kolfage launched a fundraiser through GoFundMe to raise $1 billion for the wall. However, because he has been unable to secure the funds (he only raised about $20 million), he announced that he will return the monies raised. Kolfage has since launched We Build the Wall, Inc., a section 501(c)(4) organization, a type of non-profit, to accept donations to build a wall privately. (Of course, without the power of eminent domain, it is unclear how such a project could succeed.)
Meanwhile, just this month Trump raised the idea of declaring a national emergency so that he can use his executive powers to take funds appropriated for other programs, like natural disasters, to pay for the wall. In the meantime, the President has shut down parts of the federal government.
If Trump sincerely believes that we face a national emergency at the southern border, he should take a lesson from the history books and employ the wartime bond model. Of course, he needs to start by making a more convincing case that an actual emergency exists – a dubious claim in the minds of most experts. According to the latest CNN poll, 56% of voters oppose the wall, with only 39% supporting the idea.
Floating the idea of wall bonds would allow the President to see how much support truly exists to build a border wall paid for by Americans. History has shown that when the public believes a national emergency exists, they are willing to step up to the plate.
In short, Trump should stop holding the federal government hostage over the building of a wall. Instead, he should reopen the government while simultaneously launching a wall bonds campaign to find the money that he is looking for.
If the public agrees, the President will get the funding that he wants. It the public doesn’t buy in, he should concede that it is time to move on to a different approach to border security. No matter what, the President and Congress need to negotiate a comprehensive immigration reform program that finds broad support with the American public and that includes border protection, a DACA solution and a path to citizenship.