The odds of congressional success on immigration reform tend to swing wildly from one day to the next. Reform’s chances are either “likely” or a “long shot” depending on the latest quote, headline, hearing, poll, or rumor.
But this morning, the man who largely has the future of the policy in his hands made it sound as if immigration reform simply will not happen anytime soon.
House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday that House leaders cannot move immigration reform legislation until President Barack Obama restores “trust” among Republicans.But the GOP leader did not say what rebuilding that trust might entail.
The Speaker told reporters, “There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws. And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
Boehner added, “The president’s asking us to move one of the biggest bills of his presidency, and yet he’s shown very little willingness to work with us on the smallest of things.”
As a factual matter, some of this is just odd. Obama has generally shown overwhelming willingness to work with Congress on just about anything, large or small. There’s probably a reason Boehner didn’t mention any examples to bolster his argument.
But the real significance of the Speaker’s comments were their likely bearing on the immigration debate. As Boehner sees it, House Republicans aren’t confident that the Obama administration will enforce federal law, and as such, they don’t want to vote for reform. As the argument goes, even if Congress approves sweeping border-security measures intended to satisfy GOP lawmakers’ demands, Obama may simply blow off laws (or parts of laws) whenever it strikes his fancy.
Indeed, it’s not just Boehner making this argument. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) pushed the same case on the Sunday shows.
It’s a deeply flawed argument, though the motivation behind it is quite clear.
Note, if the argument sounds familiar, there’s a good reason – the “we can’t pass immigration reform because Obama’s an untrustworthy tyrant” tack first came up last summer. At the time, some congressional Republicans argued that a delay in the implementation of Affordable Care Act provisions was undeniable proof that “we have a president that picks and chooses the laws the he wants to obey and enforce. That makes him a ruler. He’s not a president, he’s a ruler.”
As we discussed at the time, the complaint isn’t persuasive. When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, the administration has some discretion in implementing various provisions. It’s not unusual and it’s not unique to health care. Plenty of parts of the Dodd/Frank financial-regulatory reform law were delayed, too. This has long been the norm, and using it as an excuse not to trust the entire executive branch on literally every issue is kind of silly.
As Brian Beutler wrote in July:
The administration isn’t unlawfully writing the employer mandate out of existence, just like it wouldn’t unlawfully refuse to send thousands of agents to the border if an immigration reform law required them to.And because immigration reform will be a bipartisan law if it passes, Republicans in Congress will have less incentive to stand in the way if the implementation process reveals real problems with its drafting. Which means the administration won’t be left, as it is with the ACA, facing a suboptimal choice between implementing the law poorly or taking clunky administrative steps to smooth the process out.
So, if “we don’t trust Obama” is such a weak pretense for killing immigration reform, why are congressional Republicans so heavily invested in it? A few reasons, actually.
First, the GOP desperately hopes to convince the American mainstream that the president is an out-of-control, “lawless” radical. It’s not true – Obama’s actually a fairly moderate technocrat – but the manufactured narrative has become a convenient way for Republicans to raise money, rile up the base, and kill popular legislation.
Second, as a policy matter, it’s possible GOP lawmakers hope to use this excuse to tilt the policy playing field in their favor. As Greg Sargent noted on Monday, Republicans may very well insist that increased border security begin well in advance of any other part of immigration reform, insisting that it’s the only way for Obama to prove his “trustworthiness.” In other words, the legislation would give Republicans everything they want, with the understanding that other provisions could come later, once GOP lawmakers are satisfied the president isn’t a big liar.
And finally, let’s not lose sight of the blame game. Congressional Republicans, who have zero major legislative accomplishments since the 2010 midterms, are prepared to kill a popular, bipartisan immigration-reform effort that’s been endorsed by business leaders, labor leaders, economists, immigration advocates, and the faith community. If they refuse to pass legislation, as now appears likely, GOP leaders will need an extraordinary excuse to justify failure on this level.
According to Boehner, Cantor, and Ryan, that excuse effectively boils down to this: “Republicans don’t like Obama.” If they think that’ll work in persuading the public, they may want to consider a back-up plan.