Among the most prized and frequently claimed -- yet least often demonstrated -- virtues in establishment Washington is political independence. Politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties routinely insist they are independent. There are even two senators who call themselves "independent" but both caucus with Democrats and almost never vote contrary to the wishes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The truth is there is only one genuinely independent political force in Washington these days, the Tea Party, a fact that is abundantly demonstrated by the prospects for the recently passed immigration reform bill in the Senate.
The Senate version of immigration reform -- despite bipartisan support on the Senate floor, in the Obama White House, in every precinct of lobbyland on K Street and throughout mainstream media -- will never pass the House of Representatives, thanks to the Tea Party. As Washington Examiner Senior Political Columnist Tim Carney observed last week, the only truly independent political force in Washington is the Tea Party. "The Tea Party has cultivated in House Republicans such a distrust of the establishment and such a disregard for party unity that even when the issue isn't a Tea Party issue -- and immigration isn't, really -- the GOP rank and file have little interest in doing what they're told." A key reason why is the earmark ban, which deprives House leaders of the ability to buy votes with pork barrel. Thus, when the Senate passed its immigration reform, House Speaker John Boehner almost immediately called it 'dead on arrival' and promised a separate House bill approved through the "regular legislative process."
But don't go looking for praise of Tea Party independence on the editorial pages of the major establishment media outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post, or among establishment political advocates in either major party. Support for immigration reform -- defined first and foremost as some form of amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants thought to reside in this country -- is the expected default position for all respectable political figures. On the Republican side, former Bush political architect Karl Rove is enthusiastically backing the measure, as are former Reagan administration political powers-turned K Street lobbyists Charlie Black, Ken Duberstein and Ed Rogers. Also backing the Senate measure is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour and the lobbying firm he founded. Differences between these traditional GOP powers and Democratic powerhouses are strictly matters of degree, not principle.
So it is left to the Tea Party brigade in the House Republican Caucus to force constructive action on issues linked to immigration reform that demand independent thinking. If border security is to be credibly addressed, for example, it will be because the Tea Party demanded concrete measures and enforceable milestones, not because the Senate Gang of Eight agreed to eyewash promises of added Border Patrol agents and greater reliance on surveillance technology that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano can ignore. An immigration reform measure may ultimately be approved by the House, but it will be too independent to please establishment Washington.