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.

The Only Way Big Business Turns Against the Tea Party

The Washington Post had a terrific story yesterday that examines which companies funded the campaigns of Ted Cruz and other Republicans who supported shutting down the government and fueled the debt ceiling brinksmanship. It turns out that a lot of major banks and firms gave big to those candidates:

The American Bankers Association gave more money over the past two election cycles to GOP lawmakers who in effect voted to allow the United States to default on its debt than those who voted against that scenario.

The ABA contributed $2.2 million to lawmakers who ultimately ignored the group’s warnings

The story reveals that Ted Cruz and other lawmakers who voted against the final debt ceiling deal received substantial donations from financial services companies. Yet, big business was adamant that the debt ceiling had to be raised. The Chamber of Commerce urged lawmakers to vote yes on the final deal, even making it a “key vote.” A number of CEOs took to the media to warn of the consequences of breaching the debt ceiling. They had no interest in messing around with it. Now that the business community has seen the willingness of Tea Party congressmen to cause an international financial crisis, will they begin funding the campaigns of moderate Republicans or even Democrats? It’s unlikely.

Big business shouldn’t be surprised by the debt ceiling brinkmanship. Many candidates ran on a commitment not to raise the debt limit. No one was surprised that Cruz and Tea Party conservatives were willing to let us default. Why did the Chamber and other large companies support these candidates if they knew that they were willing to cause an international financial crisis? The answer is that there are many other issues that big business cares about. They want fewer regulations and lower taxes, both policies that Republicans favor. On organized labor, big business and the Republican party have never been far apart.

As Alex Pareene notes, where the Republican Party and business community actually differ is on tactics, not policy (except immigration). The Chamber wants Obamacare repealed just like the Tea Party does. They differ on how to accomplish that. That’s why big business is so supportive of the Republican Party, Tea Partier or not.

The Tea Party has also proven to be a terrific vehicle for the business community to advance its agenda. It provides grassroots organizing and a vocal base that forces lawmakers to stick to an ultra-conservative platform. Then, the lobbyists come in and use that anger to push for ideas popular amongst big business. Look at how the debt ceiling deal unfolded. The policy concession the Republicans were pushing for on Obamacare was the repeal of the medical device tax, a huge win for that industry. Remember when Congress was fighting over the sequester and its immediate harmful effects? The Tea Party jumped on the flight delays as an area where the Obama administration was intentionally inconveniencing travellers to draw attention to sequestration. Eventually, Congress approved a bill to give the Department of Transportation more flexibility with its funding to alleviate the delays. Who would benefit most from that relief? Business travellers jetting around the country each week. It all began with Tea Party anger.

In addition, the Tea Party has dragged the policy conversation to the right. Despite its harm to the economy, spending cuts have been a prime goal of the Tea Party and big business. The Chamber knows that if it the government doesn’t cut spending significantly, it will be forced to raise taxes on the rich. Even if the austerity hurts the economy in the short-term, it’s an acceptable cost in order to keep taxes low in the long-term. More than any other constituency, the Tea Party is responsible for the laser-like focus on deficit reduction. The members most committed to cutting spending are the ones who are most conservative.

This gives Republicans little reason to challenge or turn against the Tea Party. But this alliance is not unbreakable. If the Tea Party begins pursuing strategies that actively harm and set back the goals of big business, it could cause them to rethink their support of conservative candidates. The main way this happens is if the Tea Party’s tactics endanger the GOP’s majority in the House. The government shutdown and debt ceiling brinksmanship have sent approval of the Republican Party to historic lows. Yet, thanks to gerrymandering, Republican districts are mostly safe. It’s still highly unlikely that Democrats take back the House. But if that becomes more likely, big business could start pushing for more mainstream Republican candidates, especially in competitive districts where a Tea Partier faces a moderate challenger in the primary,

It’s tough to imagine a situation where the Tea Party’s tactics become so extreme so as to directly put the business community’s goals at risk. Is there anything the Tea Party could do that would result in higher taxes or increased regulation? The debt ceiling is the one area where the Tea Party could put the economy at risk, but Boehner was never going to allow us to default. It wasn’t going to happen and big business knew it. They weren’t scared of Cruz and Co.’s tactics, because they always knew that Boehner was bluffing. Indeed, the only risk the business community sees in the Tea Party is that its radical stances could alienate so much of the electorate that Democrats take back the House and enact a string of liberal policies. Until that becomes a real possibility though, don’t expect big business to break off from the Tea Party. It’s way too valuable a partnership for them.

The Trouble Securing the GOP Nomination for Senate Republicans

Ed Kilgore, Josh Marshall and Kevin Drum each had posts today basically declaring Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) 2016 presidential aspirations dead after immigration reform has stalled in the house. Marshall says so defiantly. Kilgore believes that, after “settling” for candidates that were too moderate in 2008 and 2012, the Republican base will stay away from Rubio in ’16. Drum agrees, but adds that Rubio is young and has potential in 2020 and 2024.

I agree with all of that, but I want to expand the scope of this beyond just Rubio. Every senator with presidential aspirations – from Rubio to Ted Cruz (R-TX) to Rand Paul (R-KY) – is going to face the same critique from the general public: you haven’t done anything.

8566788436_2130188b6a_o
Rubio’s 2016 presidential chances are falling.

It’s well known that Americans disapprove of Congress by large numbers. They also blame both sides for the gridlock, although the GOP gets slightly more of the blame in most polls. This presents a big problem for Republican presidential candidates over the next couple of years. How can they continue obstructing the Senate without continuing to seem like they’re the ones to blame? Rubio has seen over the past few weeks what happens when a senator steps across the aisle and tries to accomplish anything. Whatever passes the Senate is unacceptable to House Republicans, who are content to let the legislation die. Now Rubio faces the wrath of the base without anything to show moderates or Hispanics. That’s why Kilgore, Marshall and Drum have dug a grave for his 2016 presidential ambitions.

But Paul and Cruz are going to be expected to do more than shoot down every piece of legislation. Dave Weigel summed up Cruz’s six month in office today and his only accomplishments are disrupting lawmaking:

“That’s the story of Ted Cruz’s strategic acumen in the Senate. The paradox is that the theatrics that completely backfire in D.C. are embraced by activists in the bright world outside.”

We’re only six months into Cruz’s Senate career and it’s easy to rouse the base by refusing to compromise at the beginning. But at some point, most voters are going to want to see Cruz actually try to pass a law. The current Ted Cruz could certainly win the Republican primary, but he wouldn’t have a chance in the general election, because he won’t appeal to independents whatsoever. Three and a half more years of obstruction will just turn them off more.

That’s Republican senators’ problem: anyone in Congress will have trouble winning an election in 2016. It’s a lose-lose proposition for Republican Senators. If you support major legislation, help it get passed with bipartisan support and thus prove to moderates you’re willing to compromise, then the House will kill the bill (preventing you from taking credit), the Tea Party will withdraw their support and you will lose in a Republican primary. If you don’t support any legislation and just spend time arguing against all proposed policies, then independents will see you as an obstructionist who can’t govern. You’ll have Tea Party support, but moderate Republicans will be wary of your electability. If you do survive a primary, the Democratic candidate (likely Hilary Clinton) will beat you in the general election.

Rubio will top the list of 2016 Republican presidential candidates if immigration reform passes, but it’s unlikely it will. He took option one and lost. Cruz and Paul are eventually going to have to make a decision as well. Will they contribute to any policymaking and attempt to endear themselves to independents looking for compromise? Can they find a piece of legislation that is worth risking Tea Party support? Or will they continue to obstruct everything in the Senate, fight for support of the base and worry about pivoting in the future? That’s what makes any Republican congressman’s presidential campaign (pre-campaign in this case) so challenging. Anyone from the Senate faces structural political challenges that are nearly impossible to overcome. Rubio has already been taken down by them. Who will be next?