There is a vocal group of Republicans and Democrats who would like to pass comprehensive immigration reform as soon as possible.
And then there’s Bob Goodlatte.
Goodlatte, the chairman of the House judiciary committee, tells National Review that he won’t be hurried by anyone. Even if editorialists (or fellow Republicans) get impatient, he’ll proceed with caution — and his committee will control the clock.
“I’m always hearing that this has to happen by a certain point,” he says. “But I just don’t subscribe to that.”
Moving forward, he’ll mostly ignore the Gang of Eight’s plan, which was proposed last week in the Senate. Instead, he and his committee will carve up the issue and propose a series of bills. “I’m dedicated to that pursuit, and I’m convinced that the vast majority of the Republican conference agrees,” he says, including Speaker John Boehner.
Earlier this year, Boehner pledged to House Republicans that he’d let committee chairmen have more control over the legislative process. That gives Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, wide latitude to determine the pace and structure of any immigration legislation.
Goodlatte’s power irks the Senate’s Gang, since he isn’t making a path to legalization for illegal immigrants a priority. “We can’t do individual bills,” Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York said this week, when asked about Goodlatte’s strategy. “The idea of doing separate bills is just not going to work.”
Goodlatte shrugs off that criticism. In fact, he says, the Senate’s push to lead their proposal with a path-to-legalization component has dampened the House’s enthusiasm for pursuing a larger package. “When the president and others put down a mandate saying, ‘This has to be in there,’ you have to worry about whether they really want to do immigration reform,” he explains.
Goodlatte is treading carefully because he knows the pulse of his colleagues. Over the past few weeks, he has been holding listening sessions at the Capitol. Over coffee and soda in the majority whip’s office, he has lectured members on immigration policy. In return, they’ve vented their frustrations. “I’m actually late to this interview because I was finishing up another one of those meetings,” he says. “We’re trying to work though the different benchmarks about what people can tolerate.”
According to Goodlatte, they’re not willing to tolerate much, especially a path to legalization that is set in motion prior to border security being achieved.
Goodlatte confides that there is widespread aversion to anything that’s “comprehensive.” House Republicans are increasingly nervous, he says, and they’re not motivated — at all — to sell a bulky bill to their constituents.
That’s bad news for the Gang of Eight and a bipartisan group in the House that’s working on its own bill. Those negotiating teams have been hoping that their compromises would be the impetus for reform.
Goodlatte says he appreciates their efforts, but House Republicans are simply not going to sign on to any legislation that has been crafted outside of what’s called “regular order.”
Regular order means that before a bill hits the floor, a committee must first vet it with hearings and markups. It means that committee members, rather than “gangs,” finalize the legislation.
“What eight people decide isn’t going to be the be-all, end-all for the House,” Goodlatte says. “It may be an indicator of where you can find some common ground, but the House, because it’s a Republican majority, will take a more conservative approach.”
Goodlatte’s commitment to a very deliberative, committee-driven process will likely stall the flurry of immigration activity that has been dominating Capitol Hill for the past month. In fact, House Republicans expect to be reviewing the issue well into the summer.
After his talks at the Capitol, Goodlatte provides attendees with a PowerPoint presentation about immigration reform that they can use during town halls in their districts. Those slides aren’t selling any specific bill but are focused on a wide array of problems, from the border patrol to the visa program.
“I tell them that we’re going to break this all down into pieces that are more digestible,” he says. “We’re going to have a lot of hearings, and we’re going to turn this into separate bills. We’ll do an agricultural-workers bill, then an E-Verify bill, and then after the recess, we’ll maybe do some more. But it’s all a work in progress.”
A vague deadline, piecemeal legislation, and months of town-hall meetings, however, are what the proponents of comprehensive immigration reform fear most. There is growing concern by allies of the Gang of Eight that volatile summertime confrontations with constituents could make many House Republicans uneasy.
Goodlatte has little patience for such hand-wringing. As a former immigration attorney who has been in the House for two decades, he says doing things his way — a slow burn — is the only viable option.
“You can’t solve all of the problems with one bill,” he says. “We don’t want to be in the situation you had with Obamacare, where, as Nancy Pelosi said, you have to pass a bill to find out what’s in it.”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.