At a press conference on Thursday, Speaker John Boehner suggested that the chief reason his immigration reform push has ground to a halt is that Republican lawmakers don’t trust the Obama administration to implement a new immigration law faithfully or even competently. What I found surprising about the immigration push is that it happened at all. When Boehner recruited Rebecca Tallent, a veteran of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform during President Bush’s second term, from the Bipartisan Policy Center, it was widely reported as a sign of Boehner’s seriousness about an immigration overhaul. I don’t doubt Boehner’s sincerity, and I find it plausible that Boehner winces at the prospect of being seen as a speaker who failed to pass significant legislation. But conservative distrust of the president is (a) not new and (b) not obviously misplaced, given the underlying differences of opinion and the political dynamics.
Late last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seemed to be baiting Boehner with statements that implied that the speaker, and by extension House Republicans, had little choice but to pass comprehensive immigration reform. This rhetorical stance raised suspicions among conservatives, many of whom were already disinclined to back comprehensive immigration reform. It left many with the impression that congressional Democrats intended to lead their GOP counterparts into interminable negotiations only to abandon the effort to achieve a bipartisan compromise at the last minute. Conveniently, this would draw public attention to the issue for weeks and months, during which news outlets (and news satire outlets, and miscellaneous celebrities) sympathetic to a permissive approach to future less-skilled immigration and to regularizing the status of the unauthorized population would have an opportunity to press their case. And then, when Republican lawmakers finally balked at some poison pill provision, Democrats could campaign on the issue for the 2014 midterms, with their allies fully primed to go on the attack against GOP intolerance and racism. This would an extremely effective way to energize voters who aren’t generally very engaged with public affairs, as it offers a clear and compelling narrative contrasting good guys and bad guys. Such a scenario might give Democrats a fighting chance of drowning out Obamacare coverage, even as a wave of Obamacare-induced disruption starts to hits small businesses. In light of the weak state of the labor market and the persistent unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act, even among the uninsured, it is difficult to see why strategically-minded Democrats would want to remove immigration reform as an issue in a midterm base election.
Boehner is right that there is a perception among Republican lawmakers that the Obamacare implementation hasn’t just been hapless, but that it has involved serious abuses of administrative discretion. Yet it is also true that the Gang of Eight in the Senate has alienated many conservatives with a closed process that has seems to have involved more input from industry than from rank-and-file Republican constituents. The clumsiness of FWD.us, the Silicon Valley-backed pro-immigration advocacy group that clumsily established a conservative wing (“Americans for a Conservative Direction”) and an affiliate devoted to attracting progressives and independents (“Council for American Job Growth”), seemed emblematic of a larger failure to take the concerns of blue-collar conservatives seriously. Provisions of the Senate immigration bill designed to placate conservatives (mandating the payment of back taxes, English language proficiency requirements, etc.) were either unworkable or were undermined by loopholes. Conservative senators associated with Gang of Eight effort saw their reputations tarnished, thus deterring others from taking up their cause.
And these dynamics don’t just apply to comprehensive immigration reform. Conservative lawmakers are deeply suspicious of “big bills” at the moment, and will likely remain so as long as President Obama remains in office. The best option for those who want to see movement on immigration reform is to give up on bigness and pursue incremental reforms that can help build trust.