The Politics of Immigration Reform

With the government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship behind us, attention in Washington has turned back to comprehensive immigration reform, another politically toxic subject for Republicans. The question is whether reform actually has a chance. As many have noted, if John Boehner wants to pass an immigration bill, he has the ability to do so. He can put a bill on the floor that would pass with mostly Democratic votes.

That’s been true with almost every issue though. The real question is whether the incentive structure is right for Boehner to defy the right wing of his party. Examining the situation through that framework, the answer is almost certainly “No.”

As I’ve written before, the Tea Party has control over Boehner and mainstream Republicans, because they are willing to commit electoral suicide and drag the Republican establishment down with them by creating a GOP civil war. Moderate conservatives are not willing to do that. As long as the Tea Party is willing to break away from the rest of the party, Boehner must adhere to their wishes. The only exception to that rule is if the Tea Party becomes so extreme that it ensures the GOP will lose its House majority. Thanks to gerrymandering, it’s near impossible for Democrats to have much of a chance of taking back the House. The Tea Party basically cannot become so extreme as to put the House in jeopardy. That means the greatest threat to the Republican House majority is an intra-party civil war. The Tea Party is willing to cause that. The establishment isn’t. That recklessness gives the Tea Party its power.

This dynamic existed during the government shutdown and debt ceiling fights and it exists now with immigration reform. The only hope is that Democrats and the Tea Party find some common ground that is acceptable to both. Unfortunately, no such common ground exists. There is no policy acceptable to one that is acceptable to the other.

Many pundits have made a lot of what Boehner said yesterday. “I still think immigration reform is an important subject that needs to be addressed,” he said. “And I’m hopeful.” There is movement within the party as well to push for immigration reform (Darrell Issa and Mario Diaz-Balart are drafting legislation).

But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Of course, Boehner thinks “immigration reform is an important subject.” It would be insane for him to dismiss it out of hand. Entertaining the topic and dragging it out lessens the political damage when the Tea Party eventually forces him to kill it. What would he accomplish by killing it now?

There is always the chance that the Tea Party realizes how much political damage it is causing. Maybe Cruz & Co. will decide that immigration reform is necessary. I’m highly skeptical of that, but if they do have a change of heart, then immigration reform becomes a real possibility. But none of this changes the political framework that exists right now in the Republican party. The right-wingers have control and Boehner is doing his best to keep his caucus unified. If the Tea Party doesn’t want immigration reform, then we’re not getting immigration reform.

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Take a Bow, Mr. Speaker

Speaker John Boehner
Speaker John Boehner

Last night, Congress passed the McConnell-Reid plan to reopen the government and avoid a default. It also includes an income verification requirement for Obamacare and sets up a bicameral committee that will attempt to come to a large budget deal by December 13th. In return for a 16 day government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans received a cosmetic change in Obamacare that does nothing substantial.

It’s easy to look at that and lament the wasted time and needless suffering that was caused by it. It’s easy to wish that John Boehner had decided on September 30th to break the Hastert Rule and pass a clean continuing resolution and clean debt ceiling increase. It’s easy to look for blame and settle on the speaker. But it’s wrong.

It’s wrong, because it ignores the internal political dynamics that exists in the Republican House conference and it holds Boehner to a standard that no politician should be held to. If Boehner had brought to the floor a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill, he would’ve faced a revolt amongst his members. They would’ve lambasted him in the media and challenged his speakership. It would’ve been ugly.

But it wouldn’t end there. It would have created a deep fissure in the GOP. Anyone who voted for those bills would’ve faced a primary challenge. It would’ve pitted any conservative in favor of a quick retreat against those wanting to fight. The Tea Party would have gone to war against the establishment. It would eliminate any chance that the House could pass legislation until 2015. It would also put the Republican House majority in jeopardy. Imagine a year of Republican-on-Republican attacks, nasty primaries and voters choosing to stay home. This is what journalists are asking Boehner to do when they ask him to cut the Tea Party loose. They are asking him to tear his party in half.

For Boehner, this was never about defunding Obamacare or extracting policy concessions from the White House. He knew the first was never going to happen and the second was highly unlikely. The White House was looking to end debt-ceiling hostage taking and wasn’t going to negotiate. Boehner wasn’t going to let the U.S. default so he always knew he was going to surrender.

Instead, this was all about party unity. The longer Boehner postponed the day of surrender, the more he could keep his conference unified. The Tea Party can’t survive without the Republican Party and the Republican Party can’t survive without the Tea Party. Over time, the extreme tactics of the Tea Party may disappear as the political and policy consequences of their actions slowly build, but that take elections. It takes establishment candidates defeating Tea Party candidates in primaries. A Republican civil war reduces the power of both. It’s easy to see why liberals would love that outcome – it would give Democrats immense control of the legislative process. But it would be terrible for the Republican party.

This is political dynamic that John Boehner has to deal with. He must lead members that vary widely across the conservative political spectrum, who are overeager to make an impact and are willing to use extreme tactics to get what they want. He must deal with a newly invigorated grassroots base that attempts to undermine and replace him at every turn. And he faces all of this in a time when the speakership has fewer powers than ever before.

The past three weeks were his greatest challenge. He had to build up as much credibility with the Tea Party as he possibly could, knowing he would have no choice but to betray them in the end. That meant listening to them and letting them guide his actions. His strategy was to do whatever the Tea Party wanted. His moderate members were always going to support him and have his back when the debt ceiling vote came. The right-wingers were the ones he had to court.

After the deal last night, the results are in: His strategy was a huge success.

His members gave him a standing ovation during their conference meeting Wednesday – the same meeting where he announced that he was surrendering. One supporter of the #DefundObamacare movement said that Boehner’s speakership is “more secure than ever.” Rep. Raul Labrador, one of the most conservative members of the House, said he’s “really proud of Speaker Boehner.” Another hard-line conservative, Rep. Phil Gingrey, said yesterday “Speaker Boehner’s got more courage in his little finger than most of us do in our entire bodies.” These are the same members who would have challenged his speakership if he attempted to pass a clean CR and clean debt ceiling bill.

This is Boehner’s greatest accomplishment. He kept his party unified in the face of overwhelming odds. The fact that they split on the vote yesterday is meaningless. The Republican House stands as one, even if it doesn’t always vote that way. Anyone who thinks this was an easy feat for the speaker hasn’t been watching the internal dynamics of the Republican conference. John Boehner has the toughest job in politics and he’s performed it masterfully.

Take a bow, Mr. Speaker.

It’s A Great Day For American Political Institutions

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have officially unveiled their agreement to reopen the government and prevent us from breaching the debt ceiling. Speaker John Boehner has finally surrendered and will allow a vote on the bill; it is all but certain to pass with mostly Democratic support. Hurrah! We have avoided committing financial suicide, even if it took us until the 11th hour to strike a deal.

As the House bill fell apart yesterday afternoon, many people began wondering if a default was a real possibility. Fitch put the country on “Credit Watch Negative,” citing the debt-ceiling brinksmanship that has cast doubt on the ability of the federal government to uphold the full faith and credit of the United States.

Ezra Klein has argued recently that confidence in our political institutions may be a bubble ready to burst. In today’s Wonkbook, he cited the Fitch analysis and maintained that our political system is fundamentally broken:

Here’s why it does matter: Fitch is right. Does anyone really want to argue with this statement? “Although Fitch continues to believe that the debt ceiling will be raised soon, the political brinkmanship and reduced financing flexibility could increase the risk of a U.S. default.”

Fitch and S&P aren’t saying anything that the rest of the country doesn’t believe. They’re not even saying anything that Wall Street doesn’t believe. Everyone knows that American politics has become a game of Calvinball played with live ammunition. The question facing traders is when to finally bet that this is the day when someone doesn’t make it out alive.

What you see with the Fitch and S&P calls is that the market price on the U.S. political system doesn’t reflect what market participants are coming to believe about it: that a once capable and reliable system is now dysfunctional and unpredictable.

Derek Thompson says this repeated debt ceiling brinksmanship is “like Groundhog Day, but 720x longer and completely horrible.Neil Irwin and Matt Yglesias argue that we’ll be doing this all over again in a few months.

They’re all wrong.

Today is the best day for America’s political institutions in a long time. We have permanently disarmed the financial nuclear bomb known as the debt ceiling

Why do I say permanently? Because the McConnell-Reid deal confirms that Boehner and GOP House leadership were bluffing the entire time. President Obama has called for a clean CR and clean debt ceiling hike for weeks. The final deal is a clean CR, a clean debt ceiling hike and enforcement of existing law in Obamacare (income verification). If Boehner and Co. were willing to cause an international financial crisis, they surely wouldn’t accept this deal. The fact that they’re surrendering reveals that they will never let us default.

Whenever we hit the debt ceiling next, Boehner will have no credibility to threaten a U.S. default if Republicans do not get what they want. President Obama can refuse to negotiate again with the full knowledge that the speaker will cave at the last minute. The world now knows that Boehner will not let us breach the debt ceiling

This is what Democrats have been fighting for this entire time. They have created a new governing norm that eliminates any possibility that the United States won’t pay its bills. Our government may have a number of problems, but for the first time in Obama’s presidency, we can confidently say that the debt ceiling cannot be used as an extortion device. That’s a massive victory for our political institutions.