Failure on Immigration Is a Threefold Problem for Legislative Branch

Posted June 12, 2007 at 3:10pm

The failure of the immigration bill is a shame, from substantive, institutional and political perspectives. [IMGCAP(1)]

Substantively, this is an important issue that truly needs action and resolution. For those who say it would be amnesty, Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) response is the right one: Failure to act is de facto amnesty for the undocumented people now in the country. At the same time, we have to do something to make sure our economy has the workers it needs and especially the highly trained people we crave. Reforming the visa process and finding a good formula for guest workers is a high priority if we want to maintain our economic stature. And border security does need reform, sooner rather than later.

The grand compromise, painstakingly built to secure a broad coalition, was full of holes and gaps, from the guest-worker and point system to the less-than-convincing plan to secure the border. But this plan, with some tweaks, is still far better than the status quo.

Institutionally, Congress must show that it can act when the country needs action, can find a way to reach compromises across party lines, and can create, even if on an ad hoc basis, a center to do just that — while making sure there is enough internal discipline to have the center hold.

Failure to do so triggers the political problem. The public appropriately wants a “do-something” Congress to supplant the previous “do-nothing” body. The highly visible immigration flameout sends the opposite signal — that our elected leaders can’t or won’t do what we elected them to do. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is partially right when he says the first reaction of voters will be that this is President Bush’s failure. But that will be accompanied by an understandable and appropriate reaction against Congress. It probably won’t be specifically against Democrats.

But a lower approval rating for Congress, which might be a headache for all incumbents, will hit more Members of the majority, and hit them harder. It also will reinforce a very corrosive cynicism — we voted for change, and the new guys in charge are just like the old guys we voted out — that is not good for anybody.

Of course, this failure does not mean immigration reform is dead. It is now up to the president and Senate leaders to redouble their efforts, not just to re-lobby recalcitrants but to tweak the bill to make it more acceptable to more Senators across the spectrum. It should be possible to make the border security provisions tougher to secure Republican votes and to alter the guest-worker program — at least making it six straight years without the hiatuses forcing return to one’s native country — and point system to allow both preference for high skills and English proficiency without damaging family reunification too much. (And by restoring the category of waivers for exceptional individuals such as musical stars, top athletes and great scientists.)

If a bill can come back to the Senate before the August recess, that would leave time for the House and subsequent steps. It won’t be easy, but an awful lot is on the line with this issue for everybody concerned.

In an open presidential cycle, where the legislative process is attenuated as the formal nomination battles near and as we turn toward the frenzy of the election year itself, we generally look at the August recess as a key marker. Major policy does not have to be enacted by August, but it ought to be somewhere near field goal range and not in the shadow of its own goal posts if it is to have a reasonable chance of success.

There is a giant caveat, of course — in the panic leading up to the end of the Congress, the September/October before the elections, Congress often finds the wherewithal to jam through several policies. In some cases, it is the last-ditch effort of lawmakers who have worked over two years to get something done and can see the finish line ahead; in others, it is the leaders’ desperate desire to show voters Congress can act. But that is a very uncertain process and not one to count on in any specific area.

Congress so far has done an excellent job reviving its oversight and investigations role and in standing up for the prerogatives of the legislative branch. It is making some headway on lobbying and ethics reform, with a potential landmark action soon on creation of an independent panel to screen ethics complaints against House Members while opening up the complaint avenue to outside individuals and groups. It has managed to get a few significant policy pieces enacted, including the increase in the minimum wage. But it is showing an obtuseness on earmarks, a mixed record on restoring the regular order and an embarrassing months-long lapse on the ethics case of Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).

But if the 110th Congress is to win favor with voters as a positive force, a refreshing change from its predecessor, it has to get its act together on policies that matter to voters, even as it continues to be preoccupied with the Iraq War. That means doing something about student loans; electronic medical records; uninsured children; expansion of work on alternative fuels and a major initiative on energy conservation; renewal with reforms of the No Child Left Behind Act; action on the alternative minimum tax; and creation of a serious marker on global warming.

It also means doing something in the aftermath of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center fiasco to make sure that our injured troops coming back get adequate care for all their disabilities, preferably close to their families. The onus first and foremost is on Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). In the face of all the other headaches and distractions, they have to make these things happen, mediating turf disputes among committees such as Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services when necessary, but pushing action through subcommittees and committees soon.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.