Despite my strong opposition to Executive Amnesty, I do find one of President Obama’s arguments on its behalf politically – though not legally – convincing. The House Republican leadership’s refusal to allow a vote on the Senate immigration bill has indeed been inexcusable.
Not that the President or his party have been models of consistency on this issue. For example, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hasn’t exactly been shy about letting House-passed bills die on his desk. Moreover, Mr. Obama himself not too long ago passed over an opportunity to pressure Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote on an issue arguably of greater economic importance: Senate-passed legislation that would strengthen American responses to currency manipulation by China and other trading powers.
True, there was no big political groundswell for such a bill, except by many domestic manufacturers and their employees. But as I wrote yesterday, there’s no big political groundswell for Executive Amnesty, either – even among illegal immigrants, let alone Hispanic voters. Moreover, America’s longtime failure to counter foreign currency manipulation has gravely damaged a manufacturing sector that comprises what’s left of the productive heart of the U.S. economy. No one can point to comparable harm done by the status quo in immigration policy, though the wage-depressing presence of the huge illegal workforce has clearly imposed a cost.
Boehner has refused to allow a vote even though a majority of House members – including a sizable group of Republicans – supported the bill. And because Congress’ leaders have nearly total control over the agendas of their respective chambers, there the matter has rested. But did President Obama urge the Speaker to respect the will of majority? Absolutely not – because his administration opposed the legislation, too, and the last thing he wanted was to be placed in a position of vetoing a measure that was easy to portray as defending valuable industrial jobs and production.
There is of course a way for House members to force votes over the leadership’s objections. A majority of lawmakers can sign a discharge petition. The problem is that leaders typically view this step as an act of open revolt, and have the means to retaliate in all kinds of painful ways for challenges to what they regard as one of their prime prerogatives. So understandably, the Republican backing needed for a currency vote never materialized.
As for the Senate, even a minority can prevent a vote on a bill with majority support thanks to the filibuster rule. So we’re left practically speaking with a situation in which each house of Congress can simply ignore a bill passed by the other – and which I believe is unacceptable.
Of course, there are valid reasons for the current rules. It’s conceivable that relaxing them could create abundant opportunities for political mischief by both sides, and clog Congress’ pipes with all sorts of trivial matters. At the same time, passing a bill still usually isn’t the easiest task in the world in either chamber. As a result, if a measure does manage to make it through either the House or Senate, there should be a strong presumption that it deserves action from the other chamber.
I’m not sure how to solve the dilemma, but I’d certainly like to see more thinking about ideas for reducing the power of one set of Congressional leaders simply to ignore the collective will of all of their elected counterparts across Capitol Hill. I understand the need for prudence in government and am all for strong checks and balances. But the sheer arbitrariness of the current system seems deeply at odds even wth government that’s minimally effective, let alone genuinely representative.