House Immigration Bill: Will Boehner Kill the Bill to Save His Job?

This week, John Boehner had a choice to make. But contrary to news coverage, this was not a choice about immigration reform or political strategy. This was a choice about our future as a democratic republic. Handed a bill that was essentially assured of passage, Boehner had an option either to introduce immigration legislation directly, allowing a bipartisan coalition to form, or to play partisan politics and delay reform. By requiring the House to draft an entirely separate bill on immigration, not to mention invoking the senseless and counterproductive Hastert Rule, Boehner made a clear choice. In prioritizing party solidarity, he jeopardized not only immigration reform, but also our capacity for democratic governance.

Backtracking a bit, this saga began when our Senate miraculously passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, also known as S744. After a lengthy genesis, this bill garnered significant support from Republicans nationwide, including Grover Norquist, Fox News commentators, George W. Bush, and other stalwarts of conservative punditry.

Indeed, if any legislation were poised to penetrate legislative deadlock, S744 was a perfect candidate. Enjoying broad support nationally, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, this issue was an easy way to score political points and demonstrate that congressional action was still possible. Moreover, keenly remembering 2012 and aware of changing demographics, Republican politicians had an electoral incentive to please Hispanic Americans.

Against this backdrop, Boehner reached a crossroads. He could introduce S744, facilitating a temporary coalition of Democrats and establishment Republicans. Alternatively, he could abandon S744, opting either for piecemeal measures or a homemade House bill. What did he chose? Boehner opted for a House bill, a decision that necessarily adds on weeks or even months to the process.

Why is this decision so damaging? Firstly, creating a House bill is a waste of time. Even if a House bill passes, leading to a reconciliation conference between the House and Senate, only a bill approximating S744 has a chance of final passage. There may be some latitude on border security, but S744 already pours $4.5 billion into increased fencing and surveillance, along with mandatory e-Verify and $2 billion as a contingency plan. On undocumented workers, a lightning rod for Tea Party faithful, wiggle room is further limited. Deportation, a Tea Party favorite on ideological grounds, is a political and economic nonstarter. Ethical debate aside, this policy remains prohibitively expensive, potentially totaling $285 billion over five years or $20,000 for a single person.

This, however, leads to a second and crucial point. Tea Party and conservative Republicans have no interest in compromise. Thus, there is no potential common ground that could include these individuals and House or Senate Democrats. A final bill would ultimately lose Tea Party support, making this process an exercise in futility and pandering. Even if a compromise did emerge, many might still vote no, simply to deny Obama a victory.

In brief, this is what makes the Hastert Rule, Boehner’s invoked principle, so troubling. The Hastert Rule states that a bill cannot be introduced — that is, put to the House for a full vote — unless a majority of the House’s majority party supports it. Put differently, without Tea Party or conservative Republican acquiescence, a proposed immigration measure is effectively doomed. Moderate Republicans, many of whom might otherwise join a bipartisan coalition, become bound to a caucus subset that has shown little interest in making compromises or, in fact, making legislation at all. By invoking this rule, rather than simply introducing S744 and letting his members vote at will, Boehner has shown that he prioritizes party solidarity over policymaking.

Immigration reform, though less likely now, can still happen. What, though, of future issues? If we are to confront our economic, energy, educational, and security concerns, we will do so only if Congress can break its unprecedented gridlock and allow a governing coalition of Democrats and establishment or moderate Republicans. And yet, if this coalition was ultimately untenable on immigration, an issue where Boehner had every incentive to comply, what hope is there for climate or educational equity? Is there reason to believe that our institutions can handle those challenges now facing us, as well as those to come?

This decision was about more than immigration. It was about our future as a democratic republic, a nation whose institutions can bridge partisanship to find commonality and address substantive issues. And thus far, the outlook is grim. This is Death by Hastert Rule, and we are chained to a sinking ship. But either way, Boehner, the ball is in your court. Suffice to say that everyone is watching.