The Senate immigration bill has become toxic for many on the center-right, and some on the pro-worker left. Its purported “comprehensiveness” has been exposed as a morass of giveaways, backroom deals, and loopholes. Its promises of enforcement could easily be broken (that is, assuming they were designed to be kept), and, as even the Congressional Budget Office has conceded, its enforcement strategies, even if carried out, could still allow millions more illegal immigrants over the course of the next decade. In an environment where the White House’s “comprehensive” approach to health-care reform has turned out to be so greatly flawed, it is not surprising that many in the public and in Washington should also have grave doubts about the Obama administration’s version of “comprehensive” immigration reform, which is embodied in many respects in the Senate legislation.
Observing this grassroots anger about the Senate’s approach to immigration, House Republicans have countered with a “piecemeal” approach to the issue, in which the House would pass a series of small-ball immigration bills instead of agreeing on a sweeping grand bargain. If the piecemeal immigration measures go to conference with the Senate bill, though, the conferees could end up sabotaging this strategy.
There is much to be said for promoting targeted revisions of the immigration system. It can be harder to hide loopholes in smaller pieces of legislation. Focused bills can be debated more fully. Most important, any public policy can have unforeseen consequences, and it seems particularly challenging to forecast precisely all the implications of immigration policy. After all, few supporters of the Reagan effort at comprehensive immigration reform expected that the 1986 amnesty would lead to a quadrupling of the number of illegal immigrants living in the country. More modest measures could be effective at teasing out some of the details of immigration reform and limiting some of the fallout of the unforeseen.
However, the case for piecemeal reform falls apart if these individual measures go to conference with the omnibus Senate immigration bill. Once negotiations are opened, the conferees will find themselves debating not piecemeal measures but a giant immigration bill. The House might have some targeted talking points going into conference, but these points will be devoured by the bigness of the Senate bill. Instead of being independent pieces of legislation, the House’s piecemeal immigration measures would become mere details in a broader Senate-driven bill.
It’s easy to see how putting forward piecemeal reforms in the House, only to go to conference with the Senate, will strengthen the White House’s position on immigration legislation. Voting on piecemeal measures may provide temporary political cover for some Republican and Democratic House members: They can be on the record voting for tougher border-security requirements or more interior-enforcement provisions, and against instant legalization. These votes can give them talking points to ward off tough questions in primary or general-election campaigns. And when a bill comes out of conference, House Republicans and the remaining moderate Democrats can talk tough and then, with much feigned reluctance, pass Barack Obama’s immigration agenda. The immigration system needs to be “fixed,” after all — just like the health-care system prior to Obamacare.
Perhaps that is why Senator Schumer, one of the key generals for the Obama administration’s immigration campaign, is now so blithe about piecemeal reform in the House: He realizes that it will be only the vanguard for the Senate’s “comprehensive” approach if it goes to conference. Piecemeal reform, then, could be an effective political tactic to pass the major legislative accomplishment of President Obama’s second term. The best way to defang it is to refuse to go to conference at all.
Moreover, House Republicans weaken their own bargaining position by going to conference with the Senate. In any conference, Democrats would almost certainly act in lockstep loyalty to the president, so only a few Republican defections would be needed to give the White House an operating majority in conference. Should a bill emerge, there would likely be intense pressure (internally and externally) on the House to pass it, whether that involved breaking the Hastert rule (which requires approval from a majority of the Republican members to bring a bill to the floor), using a discharge petition, or luring over a bare majority of the Republican caucus. Speaker Boehner seems to have pledged that the Hastert rule would apply to any measure that comes out of a conference, but there could be great pressure on him to waive this requirement. House Republicans have their maximum leverage before conference. After an immigration conference, much of that leverage will have evaporated.