Opinion

The Great Debate

At the crossroads for immigration reform

Always uncertain, House of Representatives action on immigration reform now appears definitively on off mode for 2014.

That’s because House Republicans loudly denounced Speaker John Boehner’s most recent effort to chart a way forward by proposing principles for legislation. They saw the specter of divisive infighting when what they want is a united front for their November re-election bids.

In shelving immigration action, the speaker sidestepped the problem of intraparty strife. He argued instead that his caucus could not trust President Barack Obama to implement any new immigration enforcement measures Congress would pass. This claim, however, overlooks the enormity of what successive Congresses and administrations, under both Republicans and Democrats, have accomplished in immigration enforcement — including throughout the Obama presidency.

Dating back 25 years, but significantly accelerated since 9/11, Congress has made steep investments to ensure that federal agencies can enforce immigration laws aggressively. The United States now spends more on immigration enforcement than on all its other principal criminal federal law enforcement agencies combined.

Spending for enforcement at the nation’s borders and inside the country, along with biometric screening of all foreign-born travelers arriving at U.S. airports, reached nearly $18 billion by fiscal 2012. That is 24 percent higher than the $14.4 billion spent for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The power in a president’s mandate

The controversy over responsibility for the government shutdown has brought about one surprising consequence: a debate over the meaning of the term “presidential mandate.”

Republicans are asserting President Barack Obama has no warrant to call on Congress to fund the Affordable Care Act — since his victory margin in 2012 was so slender and the voters kept Republicans in control of the House of Representatives. The White House, meanwhile, is countering that the healthcare legislation was not only approved by both houses of Congress, and validated by the Supreme Court, but also was authenticated by his election triumph — after a campaign in which his opponent made hostility to the healthcare reform law his main point of attack.

“Presidential mandate” is an ideal brickbat in a political struggle because it is so carelessly used. Republicans who question Obama’s credentials today were quick to claim after the 2004 presidential election that, in then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, “the nation responded by giving [Bush] a mandate.” They ignore the reality that Obama gained re-election by a larger percentage of the popular vote than George W. Bush had received, and that his advantage in the Electoral College was 126 votes in contrast to Bush’s 35.

The politics of Syria

Congressional Democrats are in a bind. If they vote to authorize a military strike on Syria, they could be putting the country on a slippery slope to war. But if they vote no, they will deliver a crushing defeat to their president.

What President Barack Obama did was call their bluff. Last week, more than 50 House Democrats signed a letter urging the president to “seek an affirmative decision of Congress” before committing to any military engagement. That was the Democrats’ way of going on record to express reservations about what Obama sounded like he was going to do anyway. Then, lo and behold, the president decided to do exactly what they asked. Now it’s their decision.

Anti-war sentiment is a powerful force on the left. It was nurtured by bitter experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. Obama himself comes out of that tradition. He is trying to keep faith with it by arguing, as he did at a meeting with congressional leaders, that his attack plan is “proportional, it is limited, it does not involve boots on the ground.” He added, “This is not Iraq, and this is not Afghanistan.” Secretary of State John Kerry tried to change the metaphor when he called it “a Munich moment.” Meaning, a “no” vote would be a vote to appease a dictator.

2014: The Democrats’ dilemma

Washington has been fascinated by Republican self-laceration since the 2012 election. Karl Rove triggered a circular firing squad by vowing to take out unwashed challengers in GOP primaries. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal begged Republicans to stop being the “stupid party.” Strategists say the party can’t survive as stale, pale and male. Tea Party legislators knee-cap GOP congressional “leaders” and well-funded political PACs strafe any who dare deviate from the party’s unpopular gospel. Republicans are even talking about changing “Grand Old Party” to something more fashionable.

Representative Paul Ryan’s newest budget will put every Republican on record voting to turn Medicare into a voucher, gut Medicaid, repeal Obamacare, savage investment in education and leave some 50 million Americans without health insurance. Not surprisingly, polls suggest Congress is less popular than colonoscopies, and Republicans poll at lowest levels on record.

The re-engaged president is pressing reforms on immigration, gun violence, gay marriage and climate change. These issues help consolidate his majority – the “rising American electorate” of young voters, minorities and single women.

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