Immigration Reform 2013: Does It Prove Congress Can Still Get Things Done?

Congress is moving forward on "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR), with the Senate voting on a series of amendments to the proposal cobbled together by the "Gang of Eight" (four Republican and four Democratic senators) while another bipartisan group in the House crafts its own legislative vision.

"Moving forward" may be an overly optimistic summation of events, though, because — despite months of activity — Congress has yet to pass anything. Nor is it clear whether the different proposals from the Republican-controlled House and and the Democratic-controlled Senate will merge into a bill that does get passed, or if they will simply undermine one another. But Congress, it seems, is the sole determining factor with CIR, given that President Barack Obama has only vetoed two pieces of legislation since he entered office.

There are several points of contention in the congressional negotiations, including how to improve border enforcement (and how to measure those improvements), what changes should be made to the E-Verify work-authorization program, what kinds of visas should be allotted to high-skilled and low-skilled workers, and whether legalized immigrants should be eligible for welfare. As ever, there is also opposition to creating any new pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants (yes, that term is acceptable) on the grounds that it amounts to "amnesty." These are precisely the details that have sunk previous attempts to pass CIR (for instance, in 2006).

Whatever the ultimate fate of CIR, there is at least an awful lot of activity involving both parties in both chambers, a rarity for a Congress that many criticize for inactivity. (This is even a recurring complaint from "Crash Course" host John Green. That and Vladimir Putin.) Congress has failed to pass items ranging from gun control legislation to budget resolutions — not to mention refusing to confirm Obama's nominees for various positions — leading critics to characterize the entire legislature as being riven into uselessness by obstructionist forces. Some have invoked the "Do-Nothing" moniker that President Harry Truman used against the Congress of his day, while Democrats, naturally, refer to those obstructionists with the term, "Republicans."

But others would argue that this inactivity is a good thing: they'd rather have Congress do nothing than do something bad. Republicans and conservatives, in particular, would rather that Congress have done nothing instead of passing the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a., "Obamacare"). That landmark piece of health care legislation — passed by a Democratic Congress in 2010 — has become a rallying point for Republicans, who were unable to prevent its passage and who have been working to defund or otherwise unwind it since taking control of the House in 2011. Though they might be keen to win the votes of Latinos and Hispanics by supporting CIR, Republicans are also keen to avoid passing something that their own base opposes, or that becomes unpopular or unappreciated with respect to voters. And, in the public mind, Obamacare continues to hover somewhere between unpleasant and undiscovered.

It's still unclear where CIR is going to land in this perennial dust-up between the forces of "Do Nothing" versus "Do No Harm." Even if CIR passes Congress and receives Obama's signature, it will likely still face further waves of contention. Again, Obamacare serves as an instructive example: following passage, CIR might wind up being expanded or revoked by a later Congress, or even by the Supreme Court, which is perhaps the only government institution less predictable than Congress. For instance, would the courts uphold a welfare restriction for immigrants legalized by CIR, or would they strike it down?

But we may never get to that point, because there's the very real prospect that this intense activity will result in no immigration bill getting passed whatsoever ("sound and fury signifying nothing"). If so, we'll be left to argue over whether this is further evidence that Congress can't get its constitutionally-appointed act together, or — one man's "dysfunctional legislative process" being another man's "checks and balances" — evidence of legislative overreach being rightly thwarted.