President Barack Obama and Republican leaders are stuck on an immigration collision course following a lengthy bipartisan meeting at the White House on Friday afternoon. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and newly empowered Senate Republicans urged the president not to move forward with executive action on immigration policy, warning repeatedly that unilateral immigration policy reforms through the White House would inflame partisan tensions after Tuesday's sweeping GOP win, according to sources in both parties briefed on the meeting.
It hasn't even been a week since Election Day 2014, but already the incoming congressional Republican majority has focused on one specific message: President Obama cannot rely on his executive-branch powers to act on immigration.
Unfortunately, GOP officials haven't made much of an effort to explain why not.
By all accounts, President Obama isn't the least bit intimidated by Republican posturing, and the White House appears very likely to move forward with its plans by year's end.
The fact remains, however, that Republicans have invested far more energy in complaining about a policy that hasn't been announced than explaining why inaction is so important to them. The stated reasons don't make a lot of sense:
1. Republicans want a "fresh start" with the White House, and that'd be impossible if they have a big, partisan fight over immigration.
That's a nice talking point, but GOP leaders, just one day after the election, recommitted the party to repealing the Affordable Care Act, which is pretty much the opposite of a "fresh start."
2. Controversial actions that antagonize the other party are counter-productive.
This explanation may be true, in an ontological sort of way -- action on the issue would make Republicans upset because they're upset by action on the issue -- but it's not a substantive argument. Congress is going to do some things Obama won't like; Obama is going to do some things Congress won't like. It's what happens when different parties control different branches, and it's not a rationale for inaction.
3. Executive actions on immigration are illegal under the Constitution.
Well, I suppose it's possible the White House could go too far, but no one can complain about a policy they haven't seen. If the argument is that all executive orders on immigration are necessarily illegal, we already know that's wrong -- if Reagan could issue executive actions on immigration, why can't Obama?
4. Midterm voters don't want executive actions on immigration.
That may be true, but since when have congressional Republicans ever cared what voters want? Policymakers pursue agendas that they believe are in the best interest of the nation. GOP lawmakers have routinely ignored election results, sticking to their guns on the issues that matter most to them. Why complain when the president does the same?
In general, we're left with vague arguments related to emotions: GOP officials are talking a lot about "tone" and lawmakers' feelings being hurt, but what's needed is substance. Why, specifically, are Republicans so worked up about this?
If their stated reasons are neither legitimate nor persuasive, we have to look for other possible explanations.
One of the more compelling reasons is the fact that the new Republican Congress doesn't really expect much to get done over the next two years, and GOP leaders are looking for an excuse for failure and inaction. If they can pin dysfunction on Obama's executive actions, knowing much of the Beltway media will buy it, they can try to avoid responsibility for yet another do-nothing Congress.
But ultimately, what I think this mess boils down to is even less complicated than that: Republicans have become a fiercely anti-immigration party opposed to any changes that might improve the overall immigration system. They want do nothing, and they want Obama to do nothing, because they oppose any policy that veers from a more militarized Southern border. Period. Full stop.
Note, GOP lawmakers have never once said, "If Obama holds off on acting, we'll work in good faith towards a bipartisan compromise." Rather, the line is, "Obama should hold off on acting because we want him to."
There's simply no reason for honest observers to take such nonsense seriously.