Lessons on Compromise from the Past

George F. Will wrote an interesting editorial in the Washington Post this week comparing the debate over immigration reform to the Compromise of 1850.  In that case, the issues of the day were “fugitive slaves, the slave trade in the District of Columbia, statehood for California and creation of territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico. A Texas-New Mexico border dispute and some other matters.”  Henry Clay, often called the Great Compromiser, had failed to push a comprehensive bill that dealt with each of these issues through the Senate, as there was no majority coalition for any one set of policy outcomes.  Stephen A. Douglas took on the task of finding a more workable compromise.  Instead of forcing all of the issues into one bill, Douglas created five separate, more specific bills, and was able to get a majority coalition of the Senate for each.  The Compromise of 1850, as the package of bills came to be known, postponed the onset of the Civil War for another decade and ultimately helped the Union win, as they had an extra decade of industrial build-up and immigration to support their war effort.

The comparison is fairly straightforward.  Harry Reid and Senate Democrats have forced a comprehensive immigration reform bill through the Senate, but it has failed to gain a majority coalition or even a foothold in the House.  The argument, then, is that if the Senate or House were to break up the comprehensive bill into smaller, more specific bills, then there might be a way to establish majority coalitions for each in both the House and Senate.  Will notes three main issues under the broader umbrella of immigration reform that could be focused on: border security, the workforce, and illegal immigrants.

The piecemeal approach could avoid the types of conflicts that are plaguing the Senate bill.  Many issues are interconnected in ways that make them difficult to deal with in a single, comprehensive bill.  For example, a common point brought up by Republicans is that they will not support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants until a certain level of border security is reached.  The Senate bill contains language for an immediate pathway to citizenship but not strong enough border security for Republicans to sign on.  With so many dimensions and variables, the current gridlock suggests that there is no possible solution that a majority coalition of both chambers would support.  A piecemeal approach, on the other hand, separates the issues into relatively one-dimensional bills.  Though it is by no means guaranteed, finding majority coalitions for these individual bills should be much easier than for a comprehensive bill.  The coalition would be different for each bill, and each bill would fall somewhat differently along the political spectrum.  Republicans could force strong border control, while Democrats and moderate Republicans in Hispanic districts would implement a pathway to citizenship and relatively strong workforce protections and reforms.

There are a few problems with this approach.  First, this is a relatively simple outcome tree to predict: members of Congress would not be comparing just the piecemeal bills with the status quo, they would also compare the piecemeal approach to the comprehensive bill.  If they would prefer no part of immigration reform to pass over passing all parts, but with only one aspect that they prefer to the status quo, then they will support the comprehensive bill over the piecemeal approach.  Second, there is the question of whether the piecemeal approach would lead to a workable, beneficial outcome.  The goal of immigration reform, of course, is not to pass Congress, but to improve the U.S. immigration system and the lives of the immigrants who have come to the country.  Though the Senate bill has its own flaws, its separate parts are at least in theory designed to work together to create a working system.  There is no telling what would happen with a piecemeal approach; for example, if the outcome of the approach is no additional border security but an immediate pathway to citizenship, the result would be a huge incentive to immigrate to the U.S. illegally, a very undesirable outcome.

Though the results are unpredictable, as there is no way of telling what coalitions would support what piecemeal bills, it is likely that a piecemeal approach would have a better chance of passing Congress than the comprehensive Senate bill we are currently facing.  In the midst of our current disagreement over how to attack immigration, it would seem that a possible answer is available if we look to the past.

-Chris Gibson


8 responses to “Lessons on Compromise from the Past”

  1. Kate says :

    I think this is a really strong assessment of the problems facing immigration reform. It’s interesting to think about what Republicans and Democrats think their party’s prospects are in the long term. For example, if Democrats think that Obama’s presidency is going to be a liability that costs them majorities for a few election cycles, it might make sense that Reid, the Gang of 8 and Leahy pushed a comprehensive bill through the Senate at a significant cost.


  2. marissajoyp says :

    I think it is really interesting to look at the possibilities of a larger reform bill vs. a piecemeal approach. Though I think a piecemeal approach may be more effective in instituting a bunch of smaller reforms (that would lead to larger ones), it would be very difficult to disentangle certain issues from one another. How does one pass a bill regarding one piece of immigration without considering all of the confounding factors? It may be that all the parts of the larger reform bill must be passed together for a larger immigration strategy to work. However, passing a few smaller reforms may work as the change would be more preferable to members of Congress than the status quo.


    • legprocess says :

      I definitely agree. As Chris pointed out above, you cannot create a pathway to citizenship without border control–as it would provide a huge incentive for individuals to come to the US illegally. But, I think that the issue should be addressed by congressmen through the ceding of certain points, and through smaller pieces of legislation that address the immediately surrounding and pertinent issues. If a congressman from a border state wants a (ineffective) wall, they can “trade” support on that with a congressman looking for support on a path to citizenship.
      -Sophie S.

  3. Jane L. says :

    This is a really interesting analysis, as it compares the piecemeal approach with the comprehensive reform approach. You point out that it is impossible to predict what will happen with this piecemeal approach because we do not know if these one-dimensial bills will garner enough support by themselves. In class, we usually assume that the actors have complete and perfect information about each other’s preferences, but this is not the case in reality. It seems the whips need to collect more information about representatives’ preferences before they invest their time and effort separating the comprehensive bill into the smaller bills that may never pass.

  4. legiprocess says :

    The piecemeal approach will probably be effective for pushing some parts of the bill through. However, are certain parts of the bill that are important to Senate Democrats supported by House Republicans? I think that the Senate has not created a piecemeal bill because they are afraid that important parts of the bill, such as creating a path to citizenship, will not get passed but less popular parts of the bill, such as tighter border security, will make it through the House. However, Senate Democrats could still influence the House by sending in the bills in a certain order. They could control the situation by threatening to not pass measures supported by Republicans, such as tighter border security, if the House doesn’t pass some of the Democrats reforms. However, with bitter partisan fighting, the House may not believe the Democrats will follow through with their side of the bargain.

    -Jenny Wu

  5. caelegislativeblog says :

    I think Jenny brings up a good point. I find it very interesting that President Obama is open to the piecemeal process. Lately he has stated that he would be okay with a piecemeal reform process as long as all the issues are considered and resolved. However, this type of reform might drive the final outcome away from the President’s most preferred outcome. I can’t see many Senate or House Democrats supporting the piecemeal reform because it dissolves a bill that was constructed around their preferences.

    -Arthur Townsend

    • caelegislativeblog says :

      I agree. I think that this plays into the idea of various middle grounds – how much can the president force the legislation one way or the other if it’s broken into three components? I can see the executive using influence in a major way to sway a package vote, but I can see the legislative process being more effective if its piecemeal. Erica

  6. Brian N. says :

    One issue that I think is rather signifigant with seperate bills is the fact that everyone is going to be keeping score regardless. There is little to no doubt in my mind that a great deal of the barging will include things like “Go easy on us now and we’ll get you back later,” or “Give us this on this bill, and we’ll do likewise on the next one.” Furthermore, I feel as if there is a disturbingly high likelihood that a piecemeal approach will be worse than no approach at all, for precisesly the reasons you outlined (while i doubt that particular scenario is going to happen, something almost as bad easly could.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: