I’ve been following Ron Brownstein’s work for more than 30 years since his first book (co-authored with Nina Easton) Reagan’s Ruling Class came out in 1982. Brownstein is very smart, original and hardworking. But I think his latest National Journal column gets one important thing wrong.
Brownstein asks an intelligent question: what lessons can be learned from George W. Bush’s failure to get Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration bill (I try to avoid using the word “reform,” both for proposals that I oppose and those I favor)? But he errs, I think, by focusing exclusively on 2006. And I think he’s wrong when he argues that the stars were closest to being in alignment in that year.
Some stars were in alignment in 2006: a lame duck Republican president who wanted a bill opposed by many in his party, a persistent Republican champion of the legislation in John McCain. But others weren’t. The Senate majority leader was Bill Frist, a Republican not committed to a bill. And the House was controlled by Republicans.
The Senate did in fact pass a comprehensive immigration bill in 2006. But the House never acted on one. Brownstein blames Speaker Denny Hastert, who had a general rule not to bring to the floor legislation opposed by a majority of the members of the majority party. I think Brownstein is right in saying that there might have been a majority of 218 on the House floor for such a bill if it could get there. And he’s right that Hastert could have acted differently. But Hastert was a known quantity from the beginning, a star that was not in alignment in 2006.
Things were different in 2007. Bush was still president and still wanted a bill. The Senate majority leader was now Democrat Harry Reid, with a large immigrant population in his home state of Nevada, where he always needs strong support from Hispanic voters (he nearly lost in 1998 and actually did lose when he first ran for the seat in 1974). And the House was controlled by Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, like Hastert, was unwilling to bring measures to the floor which lacked the support of a majority of the majority party. But most House Democrats supported a comprehensive bill. Maybe not 218 of them, but enough yea votes could have been found on the Republican side, particularly given the Republican president’s strong support. More stars were in alignment, I think, than in 2006.
But no bill was passed in the Senate in 2007. For this I think primary blame goes to Harry Reid, in his first year as majority leader. Efforts to build a bipartisan majority were led by Republican Jon Kyl (McCain was out running for president) and Democrat Edward Kennedy, both of whom were pretty good at this sort of thing. But Reid did not manage it well. At one point he yanked it off the floor only to bring it back again, possibly in a less favorable setting. A lesser role in killing the bill was played by freshman Senator Barack Obama, who voted for amendments backed by organized labor which Kennedy and Kyl opposed as killer amendments—that is, their presence in the bill would cause enough otherwise favorable senators to vote nay and defeat the bill.
So you can blame (or credit) Denny Hastert for the failure of a comprehensive immigration bill in the Bush years. But I think you have to blame Harry Reid and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama as well—and I think they should get more blame, because there were more stars in alignment in 2007 than in 2006.