Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- On May 23, as the Senate raced toward passage of the comprehensive immigration bill before their Memorial Day break began, Sen. Charles Grassley moved the adoption of a new Title III to the measure. It passed easily without anybody mentioning that the amendment raises revenue, which was a violation of the U.S. Constitution's requirement that all such measures originate in the House of Representatives.

 That adds another new obstacle to the formidable task of reconciling seemingly irreconcilable Senate and House immigration bills. To surmount the constitutional problem, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in effect, must pass a new bill -- either under a procedure requiring unanimous consent or starting over with a bill subject to amendment. Considering the negative comments about the bill that senators heard from constituents last week, this may encourage new legislative attempts to control immigration.

 There is no sign that Grassley intentionally sought to sabotage the immigration bill. Rather, what happened May 23 appears an extension of his normal procedure as Senate Finance Committee chairman to keep what he and his staff are doing shielded from colleagues, not to mention the public. While Grassley was amending the immigration bill, it also became known for the first time that he had quietly enacted -- and President Bush had signed -- a retroactive tax increase on Americans living abroad.

 The Grassley touch on taxes may seem distinctive, but it fits the pattern of secrecy in the 21st-century Senate. When I told a senior Senate staffer last week that as a reporter I had no idea of what was happening to legislation, he replied that he had trouble keeping up himself even though this is his full-time occupation.

 What occurred when Grassley introduced his Title III amendment on May 22 typifies the sorry state of the Senate. As Grassley's explanation droned on in his Iowa twang, he was not easy to follow. He asserted he wanted illegal aliens to "pay all outstanding tax liabilities" and "allow the IRS to devise a system" to tax them. He did not explain exactly how this would work and certainly did not reveal that his proposal would raise revenue and, therefore, violate the Constitution.

 The only subsequent debate was provided by Sen. John Cornyn, a first-term Republican and a hard-liner on immigration. He opposed the Grassley amendment on grounds it would allow continued employment of illegal aliens. But Cornyn, a former member of the Texas Supreme Court, did not mention Grassley's constitutional abuse. The amendment passed, 59 to 39, on May 23.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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