The President’s Last Push

As immigration reform is effectively postponed until next year, I wanted to take time and examine the actions of the President so far and possible options for pushing immigration reform through Congress. President Obama promised to place immigration reform on his political agenda during his presidential re-election campaign and promised a few weeks back to get immigration reform passed before the end of the year. But how much control does the President have over the creation of reform?

Currently, the President has been focusing on smaller changes to immigration policy. Last Friday, President Obama issued a nine page memorandum to allow some of the country’s illegal citizens with relatives in the U.S. military to stay in the United States. The order also allows those illegal family members to apply for citizenship in the U.S. This change is said to positively affect thousands of military families who worry about the legal status of their families. In late August, issued a similar presidential memorandum to prevent the deportation of illegal citizens who were the parents of minor children. Presidential memoranda and executive orders are powerful presidential tools for Obama because he change the way government rules are followed and does not have to appeal for legislative approval. This is one method President Obama can use to reshape our current policies on immigration before the end of the year.

However, executive orders and memoranda only allow the president to make changes to how current law is implemented and followed. Unfortunately, these means do not allow the president to create new immigration reform. This is a huge limitation for President Obama as he continues to persuade a gridlocked Congress to create immigration reform. As we stated in class, the president’s power of persuasion can lead to bargaining between the branches of government and the creation of bipartisan policy. However, the willingness of the House to bargain with the Senate and the President has dramatically decreased since the government shutdown crisis. House Speaker John Boehner has recently stated that the House would not go to a formal conference over a comprehensive reform bill endorsed by the President and the Senate. Many Republicans legislators have found it more political appealing to focus on the failure to successfully implement healthcare reform than to vote on a comprehensive reform approach. Some other legislators like Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have stated that the President’s use of memoranda to make changes in immigration policy have “poisoned the debate”. In this political environment, it is clear that political conditions will not allow President Obama to have an advantage over Congress. Therefore, he will have little ability to affect policymaking in Congress.

So where does President Obama go from here? As we learned from Richard Neustadt’s book Presidential Power (1960), the president’s influence over policymaking is “weak”. I believe there is little the President can do to bridge the congressional divide between the House and the Senate. The best avenue for any new immigration reform this year might be through memoranda and executive orders.

-Arthur Townsend


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

Immigration and our Executive

In class this week, we spent a good amount of time discussing executive-legislative relations.  One of the issues we talked about was presidential influence – how much can the president influence the budget, the agenda, etc.  The president seems to be going public with the issue of immigration, calling upon conservatives to push for a vote before the end of the year.

According to the ever-credible Fox news, President Obama is meeting with and appealing to big companies to garner support for a vote to have Boehner bring immigration to a vote in the House.  There is worry that by courting these individuals, the president is splitting the conservative party into more moderate and comprising Republicans and more stubborn ones (the hazards of attempting to get something done in Congress).

One of the main players angry with the president on this is top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama).  His main complaint is that this incoming non-American labor is taking jobs away from the American people (Sessions’s home state of Alabama has an unemployment rate lower than the national average).   He holds sway, however, and is being backed by other leading conservative Senators:

“They wrote in a letter earlier this year to the Congressional Black Caucus that granting legal status to illegal immigrants ‘will likely disproportionately harm lower-skilled African-Americans by making it more difficult for them to obtain employment and depressing their wages when they do obtain employment.’”

These leaders hold a lot of sway in the Senate as their parties leaders.  This will make bringing the bill to the floor of the House incredibly hard, knowing that, for House Republicans, their compromises will break party unity. 

Additionally, a main proponent for immigration in the House (Florida’s own GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart) is now saying that he does not believe that the House Republicans will be bringing immigration to the floor.  Diaz-Balart even extrapolates that, if not voted on by February or March, immigration will not be dealt with by this Congress because of the election cycle.  According to the Washington Post, “Diaz-Balart has been deeply involved in bipartisan negotiations over immigration for years now, and is thought to be in touch with House GOP leaders on the issue, so folks involved in the immigration debate pay close attention to what he says.” 

If this is not dealt with soon, it will begin to divide the Republican party within Congress further.  This separation between conservatives and moderates trying to create (or halt) legislation will effectively continue to hinder the legislative process as a whole, and not just with immigration.  And while this may have been instigated by President Obama placing pressure on Republican leaders and CEO’s (he offered up the idea of cutting the deficit by “$850 billion in the first 20 years and grow the economy by about $1.4 trillion over the same period”), executive pressure may be necessary in order for anything to get done in the legislature. 


Another Sign of Possible Cooperation in Congress?

Right now, Congress is attempting to pass immigration reform, but will a bipartisan bill emerge before the end of the year? In this round of debate, Democrats and Republicans are discussing the substance of immigration reform, with the proposal to grant undocumented workers permanent legal status being one of the most contentious articles of reform. Democrats in the House and Senate want a comprehensive bill that would include a plan to allow undocumented workers currently in the US to obtain legal citizenship. Republicans strongly oppose proposals that grant legal status to immigrants and insist on increasing spending on border security measures. House Republicans led by Speaker John Boehner have sworn to use a “piecemeal” approach to create reform instead of accepting a reform bill that has already passed the Senate during the summer.

Interestingly enough, there have been a few House Democrats who have expressed their willingness to participate in a piecemeal legislative process if it leads to reform. For example, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) has stated that he is willing to cross the partisan divide and vote on individual aspects of immigration reform. He even criticized his Democratic colleagues in the house for their stubbornness to negotiate with Republicans. However, Gutierrez quickly backtracks from his compromising tone by saying that he will only accept a piecemeal reform process if it leaves intact a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants, referred to as the “Dreamers”. Gutierrez could never accept a bill that did not include a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers” because he represents Illinois’s 4th district, a gerrymandered region densely populated with Mexican-Americans and Puerto Rican- Americans. Obtaining citizenship is probably a relevant issue for some of the residents in the district and if Gutierrez is caught supporting a bill without a path to citizenship he would likely lose some support from his constituents. Even though immigration reform could positively affect his district, Gutierrez must also protect his political seat by ensuring that the children of illegal immigrants have an opportunity to become citizens.

Gutierrez’s willingness to engage in a piecemeal legislative process is both encouraging and discouraging for the fate of new immigration reform. It demonstrates that some politicians in Congress really want to produce viable immigration reform and are willing to go beyond party antics to achieve policy outcomes. However, the willingness of congressmen to pursue a bipartisan solution seems quite limited. Republicans refuse to vote for a comprehensive immigration reform bill and political restraints have force Gutierrez to become less compromising on a path to citizenship. Hopefully Gutierrez and other members of Congress can find a way to work together before the opportunity to create lasting reform goes away.

-Arthur Townsend


Bipartisan Support for Immigration Reform in the House?

Last weekend, Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) publically announced that he is joining the Democrats in support of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, specifically the one passed by the Senate earlier this year.  While we may like to think that Denham is doing this as a symbolic gesture of his willingness to break Congressional gridlock and make our country a more welcoming destination for immigrants, his true motive can be revealed by looking at electoral details.

Denham represents the 10th District of California, which has some telling demographic and electoral attributes.  Denham’s hold on the district is by no means secure, as the district’s partisan leanings have not been on his side recently.  Denham won in 2010 with only 52% of the vote, defeating his challenger by barely 11,000 votes.  The district voted for Obama in 2012, and Denham is facing a tough Democratic challenger in Michael Eggman in 2014.  Though Eggman does not have previous political experience, he is an agricultural-based district native with lots of local support.  Secondly, Denham’s district has a large Hispanic population (40% of the population), possibly due to the strong agricultural sector from which Eggman hails.  The combination of a tough political climate for a Republican and a large share of his constituency likely very interested in immigration reform makes it a smart electoral move for Denham to join Democrats in support of the Senate’s immigration reform bill.

Looking at the larger picture, however, Denham’s move alone does not affect the chances that the Senate’s reform bill will pass the House.  Currently, 185 Democrats have come out in support of the bill, and even if all Democrats were to vote for it, 17 or more Republicans would need to join them to pass the bill.  The Washington Post’s Sean Sullivan analyzed other studies and data to see how many other districts like Denham’s exist, with Republican Congressmen representing divided districts with large Hispanic populations.  Only 24 districts have a Hispanic population of greater than 25%, with 15 of those leaning strongly Republican.  This leaves only nine representatives (including Gary Miller and David Valadao from California and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida), not enough to pass the bill through the House.  However, pro-reform interest groups have targeted 28 Republicans whom they believe they can sway to vote for the bill, so the list of potential aisle-crossers is not necessarily limited to nine.

In order to reach a floor vote, however, the Senate bill would have to make it through the House subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, which is chaired by Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.  In July, Gowdy stated that “The Senate bill is not going to pass in the House,” which does not lend much optimism to the bill making it through committee unscathed.  Gowdy, like many other Republicans, believes in securing the border before providing a path to citizenship, something not accomplished in the Senate bill.  House Republicans seem more in favor of multiple, smaller immigration reform bills rather than the large sweeping Senate bill, something Marco Rubio supported last Monday.

Despite the many obstacles to immigration reform, Denham’s move, politically motivated as it might be, is encouraging if just for the fact that at least one member of Congress is willing to work with the other party to accomplish major reform.  Though the list of potential candidates is short, there is always the possibility that if enough Republicans support the Senate bill, or are at least willing to have a conversation about how to amend it so that both parties will support it, that Republican leadership both in general and in the appropriate committees will allow the bill to the floor for a vote.  The resulting conference committee could be either productive or a disaster, but any type of legislative action would certainly be better than the status quo.

-Chris Gibson

The Push for Reform – A Bipartisan effort

In the wake of the government shutdown and reboot, President Obama and hundreds of advocates for immigrant reform have taken up the crusade against immigration, bringing this issue to the forefront of the minds of policy makers.

Advocates insist that reform is dead, planting themselves in front of deportation vehicles and the offices of nine representatives with high latino populations, including the following: Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), David Valadao (R-Calif.), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Joe Heck (R-Nev.).  Note: they are all Republican.

The issue is being forced to the forefront because there are less than 20 days left in the legislative calendar – and even though there are more than two months left until the end of the year, Congress will focus solely on the budget crisis – hence, this push.  Once the new year hits, 2014 is midterm election year, which means that the focus will be on reelection. (A/N: This is comforting to know that half of every term of a representative is focused on reelection.  It is no wonder that the American people feel that Congress is inefficient.)

Immigration has a chance though.  Because Boehner brought a vote to the floor of the House that was backed by Democrats and moderate Republicans to end a shutdown, the hope is that he will be swayed to do so again when it comes to immigration.  Senate Bill 744 passed over the summer, and the bill drafted by the Democrats may have a chance to pass in the House.  In fact, Representative Jeff Dunham from California has signed on and partnered with Nancy Pelosi to attempt and draw partisan support for a House bill.  This House bill is similar to the Senate bill.  The key difference is in the amendments.

In the Senate version, a controversial amendment was added that “would add 700 hundred of miles of fencing and 20,000 border control agents along the U.S.-Mexico border. That provision was added to the Senate bill to help win votes from conservative Republicans.”  However, this was incredibly controversial, and members of the House did not want this amendment added.  Instead, a  bill “Democratic lawmakers substituted […] that was passed unanimously by the House Homeland Security Committee last spring [was introduced]. That plan instructs the Department of Homeland Security to write a plan that could ensure the apprehension of 90 percent of illegal border-crossers in high-traffic areas within two years and across the entire southern border within five years.”  This amendment, since it received bipartisan support, would be more able to draw moderate and even more extreme GOP members to push Boehner to bring a vote to the House floor.

The question is, will Boehner do so?  Boehner claims that immigration reform is important and that he is “hopeful” that there will be a vote, but he can make no promises.  This legislation is clearly important enough to vote upon – it may even be advantagous for him to say that he called this vote and got legislation to pass (credit claiming).  President Obama has put the impetus on him and on the House Republicans.  Hopefully Dunham, who crossed the line and responded to the protests at his office, can convince other moderates to cross the aisle, and they can all pressure Boehner into allowing a vote.  Otherwise, Boehner may not be in a good position come mid-term elections.


What Impact will Cory Booker have on Senate Education Policy?


New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker was elected to the Senate on Wednesday, filling the seat of the deceased Democrat Frank Lautenberg.  The seat, which was held in the interim by Republican Jeff Chiesa, now returns to the Democrats, increasing the number of Senators caucusing with the Democrats to 55.  While the number 55 itself holds no legislative significance, Booker’s election will likely increase the chances of education reform in the Senate.

Booker enters the Senate as a rare breed of Senator.  He is a young, nationally popular Democrat seeking the national spotlight, something Senate Democrats have lacked in comparison to Republicans like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul.  Booker’s popularity and national following will likely give him a strong position in the Senate despite his youth and inexperience.  The symbolic representation of being one of now only two Black Senators should also help catapult him into the legislative spotlight.  In summary, Senate Democrats are likely to look to Booker as a new figurehead for the party, giving him a powerful platform for introducing new legislation.

When Booker was mayor of Newark, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said of him, “You have a mayor who is actively engaged. A lot of mayors run from education because it’s difficult and challenging. He’s running to it.”  As mayor, Booker tackled a number of important education issues, including a $100 million grant from Mark Zuckerberg to improve Newark schools and give urban youth more opportunities to succeed.  His campaign website also lists the following accomplishments:

  • More kids in preschool: 61 percent more 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in public preschool;
  • Tackling illiteracy: Raised philanthropy to provide 120,000 books for nearly 12,000 low-income students at 20 Newark public schools to help build home libraries;
  • Options: Attracted new public school models, leading to families having more quality public education choices;
  • Healthier families: By this fall Newark will have doubled the number of schools served by school-based health centers, which serve students and their families with medical, dental and behavioral health care.
  • Places to play: Expanded acres of school athletic fields and playgrounds;
  • Empowering teachers: Establishment of a “Teacher Innovation Fund” that pays for ideas teachers have to improve student outcomes;
  • Rewarding good teachers: Facilitated a groundbreaking teacher’s union contract that made the district the first in New Jersey to offer performance bonuses to effective teachers, and holding accountable ineffective teachers who are failing our kids.

Booker’s devotion to education combined with the myriad of problems in the U.S. school system would make education a perfect issue for him to bring forward or encourage as a new Democratic figurehead.  In addition to K-12 education, Booker has also stressed the importance of making higher education more affordable, something Congress has struggled to deal with over the last few months.  Now that the shutdown and debt ceiling crises have ended (at least for now), Congress should ideally be looking to create some good news for a change.  While immigration reform seems to be the next big item on the list, education reform would be a widely popular move as well, since education has such a broad reach and directly touches the lives of nearly every U.S. citizen.  Though Booker has made no explicit statements about putting major education reform on the Congressional agenda, the political atmosphere is ripe for doing so.  Booker’s youth and popularity would make him the perfect spokesman for such a bill, and even if such a bill would not be filibuster-proof (see my last post) or would fail to pass the House, it would certainly garner national attention, shifting the focus of the media away from politics and towards actual issues in need of reform.

Chris Gibson