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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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.

Here’s Where the Tea Party’s Power Comes From

Sam Stein and Ryan Grimm have a great article at the Huffington Post that gives the behind-the-scenes of the shutdown and debt ceiling fights. It begins with how President Obama and Harry Reid mended their relationship and decided over the summer that they were going to play hardball. Obamacare wouldn’t be touched and they wouldn’t negotiate over a government shutdown or the debt ceiling. The piece then walks through how the negotiations unfolded and Reid and McConnell eventually came to their deal.

But there’s one minor part that exemplifies why the Tea Party has so much power in the Republican Party. Here it is:

The speaker was juggling the demands of multiple factions. His moderate members had been complaining in private that the standoff was crushing them. But they hadn’t bolted, much to the delight of the conservative wing. “At one point,” a senior House GOP aide said of one caucus meeting, “Michele Bachmann stood up and thanked the moderates for standing with us.”

Remember when the moderates were fed up with the Tea Party and ready to revolt? That fizzled very quickly. We’re not talking about the mainstream conservatives here. Instead, it’s Peter King and the 20-30 other House GOPers who could have joined up with House Democrats at any time and brought an end to the shutdown. These are the members that the Tea Party is most worried about, because they can reduce the Tea Party’s power by siding with House Dems.

But this never happened. The moderates refused to betray the Tea Party, despite repeated threats. Why? It’s not entirely clear. Maybe they fear a primary challenge. Maybe they have a deep belief in caucus unity. Whatever the reason, Boehner was rightly more afraid that the Tea Party would break off and declare war on the Republican Party than the moderates would. If the moderates were willing to commit electoral suicide by starting an intra-party civil war, they would have the power to dictate the House strategy to Boehner. Time and time again we’ve seen that’s not the case. The moderates won’t wage war against the establishment. The Tea Party, on the other hand, is more than willing to do so. If they break off from the Republican Party, it will have grave electoral effects on both. Neither would survive. But the Tea Party either isn’t considering the consequences or don’t care about them. The same dynamic exists with moderate Republicans, but they care about the consequences. The Tea Party’s blind recklessness is what gives it its true power.