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On immigration, start with what's doable to avoid lasting bitterness

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Opinion,Congress,James Jay Carafano,Columnists,Immigration,House of Representatives,John Boehner,Law

"Solutions to problems cannot be found in a pool of bitterness.” So proclaimed John Dennis "Denny" Hastert upon his swearing in as the 59th Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1999.

Hastert was pledging to look for bipartisan solutions, but it had special meaning for rank-and-file Republicans in the House. As a means of avoiding ruinous bitterness, Hastert vowed never to bring a bill up for a floor vote unless it had the support of the “majority of the majority.”

Hastert wanted to preclude bitter intraparty fighting over controversial measures. And it was nothing new. The previous speaker, Newt Gingrich, had adopted the same policy. Still, it is known today as the Hastert Rule rather than as Newt’s Law.

The current speaker, John Boehner, has said more than once that the Hastert Rule makes sense. And he’s right. In a Congress so divided over so many issues, alienating half of your own party to garner “bipartisan” support for a bill is no way to reach a political consensus.

In practice, Boehner has sidelined the Hastert Rule more than once since picking up the speaker’s gavel. Nevertheless, in dealing with one of the most controversial topics in Washington — immigration and border security — it makes sense to stick to a rule that will help keep his caucus together.

Last year, the Senate passed a “comprehensive” immigration bill. Its almost 1,200 pages would alter scores of U.S. laws, sometimes in completely contradictory ways. The elaborate jiggery-pokery was not geared to help maximize economic benefits, improve border security or reinforce the rule of law. Rather, it was crafted to provide just enough political cover to convince 50 percent plus one House members to sign off on amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.

In practice, this bill looks a lot like the legislation that birthed Obamacare, masking the potentially astronomical costs to the U.S. taxpayer, papering over the new authorities granted Washington to interfere in the economy and our communities and ignoring the massive growth in bureaucracy required to administer the “reforms.”

Virtually all of Boehner’s GOP brethren are unhappy with Obamacare. What are the odds most that would sign onto an amnesty bill characterized by the same blithe assurances and behind-closed-doors wheeling-and-dealing?

If the Senate amnesty bill makes it to the House floor, the process won’t be pretty. It will, however, create a very deep “pool of bitterness.” Worse, the bill will do nothing to repair our broken borders or solve any of the other problems plaguing our current immigration system.

To develop constructive immigration legislation, House leaders should abide by the Hastert Rule to craft meaningful reform proposals, then “build out” to generate true bipartisan support. This is best done by starting with the issues that most already agree on, rather than those issues that are most divisive.

A step-by-step process such as this could both yield workable solutions and rebuild trust and confidence in the legislative process.

Reforming visas policies can both spur economic growth and discourage unlawful immigration. Why not start with revitalizing the now virtually moribund Visa Waiver Program? This program allows citizens of member countries to travel visa-free for up to 90 days for business or pleasure. Travel encouraged by a reinvigorated Visa Waiver Program could add billions to the U.S. economy. In 2010, the US Travel Association estimated the current program generated about $82 billion annually in economic activity. This program has two added benefits: it deters travel by terrorists and transnational criminals and discourages “visa overstays.”

It is time for Congress to abandon the “comprehensive” approach to immigration reform and try a constructive approach instead. Washington’s “pool of bitterness” is more than deep enough already.

JAMES JAY CARAFANO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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James Jay Carafano

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The Washington Examiner