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.