Bachmann vs. Labrador at RSC

by Jonathan Strong

The Republican Study Committee yesterday hosted Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul for a spirited debate on immigration. In my piece for the homepage this morning, I covered the meeting — and Rubio’s immigration strategy — in depth. But it turns out I missed one key interchange that happened behind closed doors yesterday.

During the question-and-answer session, Representative Michele Bachmann rose to make an impassioned plea against the Senate bill, saying the most important rule in legislating is to “first, do no harm.”

Bachmann also urged RSC chairman Steve Scalise to bring in the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector to discuss his study about the costs of immigration reform from the federal benefits that will eventually go to illegal immigrants who gain citizenship.

Representative Raul Labrador dismissed Bachmann’s comments. First, he said the current immigration system is already doing harm, and that “we have to do something” because “anything” is better than the current system.

Secondly, he sternly lectured the 100 assembled lawmakers that Rector’s study relies on faulty assumptions and should be discounted. Labrador said Rector assumes immigrants are not going to achieve any income growth over the next 50 years, whereas the evidence shows that immigrants are becoming business owners and otherwise succeeding in the American economy.

In an interview, Rector said his study assumed an increase in income both from illegal immigrants becoming citizens (a net 5 percent increase) as well as income growth over time as those people got older. However, because of the relatively low education levels of illegal immigrants, their income growth over time is modest and does not dramatically affect their net household deficit.

Moreover, even if alternative, more optimistic assumptions about income growth for illegal immigrants who attain citizenship were used, it wouldn’t come close to evening out the ratio of new tax revenue to new government benefit expenditures.

“Most of these arguments involve quibbling around the margins of the number as if somehow those kind of quibbles invalidate the fact that there’s a net cost of $5 or $6 trillion here, when in fact the quibbles, even if they were valid, only affect things at the margin,” Rector said.

Incidentally, in the RSC meeting, one Republican shouted a retort to Labrador that “even if Rector’s only half right, that’s a $3 trillion cost” to immigration reform.

After Labrador spoke, Scalise said that Rector could come before RSC but that the group would also need to bring a scholar from the Cato Institute to balance the discussion. Yesterday’s meeting drew praise from several participants because it was a very “balanced” discussion, something Scalise told National Review Online he was very keen on creating. But the need to balance the views of Rector, someone who has traditionally been held in high esteem among conservatives, rankled some in the room.

Rector didn’t seem daunted, however. “That’s fine. I have no problems debating him. The reality is that CATO is misleading decision makers and the public by making a claim that immigrants do not receive very much means-tested welfare aid, and that they get less means-tested welfare aid than U.S. citizens,” he said.

Beyond the important and interesting substance of the debate, several people in the room noted that the tenor of Labrador’s response to Bachmann was dismissive and at odds with the rest of the discussion which was very respectful. Labrador was described as “snippy” and someone “sick of hearing” all the criticisms about immigration reform. His spokesman said it was a “positive meeting” and that Labrador’s responses were “very fact-based.”

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