Reality Check

07.10.14

Border Kids Crisis—Impotent Congress

The alleged urgency of the problem is inspiring no action on Capitol Hill. But the failure to deal with the influx of Central American children isn’t inevitable—it’s driven by fear.

Cynicism passes for wisdom in Washington. And despite the urgent optics of the border kids crisis, our D.C. politicos would rather demagogue the issue than deal with it. Our porous borders are seen as a midterm election play-to-the-base appeal instead of a problem to be solved.

Listen to members of Congress and most correspondents who cover them, and you just know that immigration reform is never going to happen this year. After all, the smart money says any controversial action is considered a loser in an election year. And forget the next sessions of Congress—the presidential election will have begun and nothing will get done, as President Bush learned in 2007, when the proto-Tea Party talk radio crowd tanked his bid for a bipartisan immigration reform.

Hell, even as protests rage against the border kids’ immigration buses with signs that would fit alongside a scrapbook of the Know-Nothing movement, Congress doesn’t even look as if it can muster the will to pass the emergency relief bill President Obama is pushing to move resources to the border and deal with the influx of Central American kids sent here courtesy of the cartels. The alleged urgency of the crisis is not inspiring action.

But the failure to deal with the immigration problem is not inevitable. It is a decision driven by fear.

Reality Check No. 1: Immigration reform is only dead if the House of Representatives—specifically Speaker Boehner—decides it is. Despite attitudes to the contrary, Congress is not out of session for the rest of the year. Its members can and should return to work with a determination not to go down in history as the least productive and least popular Congress in history. They have the opportunity and the obligation. After all, the GOP House leadership issued a brave and semi-specific list of principles for immigration reform before retreating in fear from the Tea Party earlier this year. Their literal abandonment of principle occurred months before Eric Cantor’s shock loss was misinterpreted as a mob-rule rejection of immigration reform.

After all, a new poll shows that 86 percent of Republicans believe that Congress should take action to fix the immigration system—and 79 percent of independents agree. So much for the Stockholm syndrome the GOP House leadership insists represents political reality. I can’t think of any supposedly controversial RINO issue that commands the support of 86 percent of Republicans. The remaining 14 percent might be loud, but they aren’t anything more than a vocal minority, especially now that the primaries are over.

Reality Check No. 2: We’re already halfway to an immigration reform bill. Thanks to the hard work and legitimate political risks of senators like Lindsey Graham—whose primary win the night of Cantor’s loss has been conveniently overlooked in this debate—a bipartisan group passed a bill informed by the failure of the ’07 effort that would double the number of border patrol agents and double the miles of fence along the border. The Senate bill also addresses many of the principles backed by the House GOP leadership not so long ago, including expanding visas for high-skilled workers and farm workers alike, implementing employer verification, and mainstreaming the DREAMers.

Members of Congress need to stop acting like outraged bystanders to the problem they have the power to fix.

By all means, let’s debate the details. Let the House vote across party lines for a different approach and then address the discrepancies in conference. Negotiation and compromise are the lifeblood of democracy, not poison to the body politic. But fear of being seen as anything less than absolutist and intransigent is trumping the responsible impulse to solve the problem that everyone recognizes. That is the height of cynicism, combined with an admission of impotence.

Here’s what’s especially sick and self-defeating about the current stalemate: The Republican leadership recognizes that immigration reform is the right thing to do politically, economically, and practically. As Senator Graham argued, “We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party, and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is to pass comprehensive immigration reform.” No one can defend the status quo—except perhaps Democratic strategists, who recognize that Republican obstruction is good for them politically. But still we persist in the fantasy that immigration will get fixed only if we wait one more election, or until the next president takes the oath of office. This is a dereliction of duty, pure and simple—a firing offense.

If Boehner decided to show the leadership to do what he knows is right for the country and his party, he could open the floor to a vote on an immigration bill that could pass if he’s willing to ditch the fictitious “Hastert rule,” which even former speaker Denny Hastert says “never really existed.”

But instead of pursuing a concrete legislative legacy and continuing the profile in courage successfully pursued by Graham & Co., Boehner seems to be intimidated by the likes of Louie Gohmert and Steve King. Expect the rhetorical dodge to be faulting Obama for a “lack of leadership” on this issue—exactly the head-fake Mitt Romney embraced when he tried to blame the president for not passing a comprehensive immigration bill that Romney opposed when he first ran in 2007. It’s not going to work because it flies in the face of facts.

Members of Congress need to stop acting like outraged bystanders to the problem they have the power to fix. If they’d rather act like pundits than problem-solvers, they should resign their office and put in a bid to be cable news commentators.

Congress has it in its power to solve this problem. Fear of populist forces misses the real Main Street frustration, driven by Washington’s failure to reason together. Delay is denial—it will be even more difficult to start over in the Senate next session. And the old arguments for inaction will be trotted out for the next president, as well.

Boehner should seize the day and take his own advice from earlier this year: “This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair,” said the speaker. “I think it’s time to deal with it.” So do it. Now.