The GOP and Immigration: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

Jay Cost
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Posted: Feb 23, 2015 12:01 AM
The GOP and Immigration: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

Why is the Republican Party so unreliable on the immigration issue?

There is little doubt that they are unreliable. Conservatives want iron-clad border-security measures firmly in place before any legalization process begins. Yet GOP members of Congress are eager to switch it around, and then accept milquetoast security.

It is strange. After all, congressional Republicans are not bad on taxes; they’re not secretly looking to hike the rate you’ll pay the IRS in April. They’re not bad on regulation; they are serious when they say they want less, not more red tape.

Why immigration? This is, after all, a party-based democracy, and the GOP is the party that represents the conservative grassroots. Yet the two diverge on this issue -- pretty substantially. What is going on?

The answer usually comes back: business interests. They want the cheap labor from legalization, and all sorts of other groups -- agricultural or fishing concerns, for instance -- want new carveouts for their own industries. They ply members of Congress with money, lobby them aggressively, provide them with cushy jobs after they leave office, and presto: the base asks for one thing, the party offers another.

This is all true, but it misses a larger story, one that highlights just how difficult it will be for conservatives to really change the way government works.

If you ever visit Washington, D.C. you might discover it is a study in contrast. Go down to the National Mall, tour the Congress, walk past the White House, and the buildings all reflect a kind of simple, almost austere republican virtue. Nothing too fancy -- nothing like Buckingham Palace or Versailles. Just sturdy yet impressive structures that reflect our belief that the people temporarily occupying those buildings are no better than anybody else.

Yet go a few blocks to the northwest and you will see row after row of drab, indistinct office buildings, all of which are pretty new. Who’s in there? Interest groups, for one. Consultants, too. And lobbyists -- scores and scores of lobbyists.

A century ago, they weren’t really there at all. Washington developed virtually overnight -- and not because an important industry settled there -- like New York and the financial district. There is no economically important seaport -- as with Los Angeles or New Orleans. It is not a transportation hub like Chicago. They don’t make steel in D.C., as they did in Pittsburgh or Birmingham. No -- Washington grew from a sleepy farm town to a sprawling metropolis because the government grew -- and those interest groups descended upon the nation’s capital to get a piece of the government’s action.

Immigration reform is just another piece; it really gets down to distributing federal largesse. Immigrant groups get new legal status. Businesses get cheap labor. Fishermen and orange growers get special exemptions. This is the kind of thing Washington, D.C. is very, very good at. It’s the local industry, if you will: deciding who wins, and who loses. In my new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, I call this the “interest group society.” It defines our politics today.

This is why congressional Republicans are so lousy on the immigration issue. It is not that they are RINOs, it is that they are members of Congress. Implicitly, that is how members of Congress, in both parties, view their job these days -- dispensing benefits to those who ask for them (while writing big campaign checks).

This points to the big challenge that conservatives face, and why we so regularly but heads with the GOP leadership. Conservatives want to roll back the capacity of Washington to pick winners and losers. We’re not interested in politics because to grab our slice of the pie. We want a limited government that is committed to the public interest -- something much closer to what the Founding Fathers invented. We detest this massive, corrupt behemoth that sits upon the Potomac. That puts us basically in opposition to most members of Congress, Republican or Democrat, who view their job as growing government to satisfy the clamor for more special favors.

And immigration is a classic example of the problem. Immigration reform, at least as it was designed a few years ago in the Senate, is bad for the country at large. It would raise the unemployment rate and lower wages; worse, because its border security provisions are lousy, it would not even solve the problem. Nevertheless, it is good for certain interests -- immigrant activist groups and business lobbies. And members of Congress -- including Republicans -- are inevitably inclined to follow those groups at the expense of the public good.

And immigration is not the only issue like this. How about farm subsidies? They get less play than immigration, but the GOP signed off on a terrible farm bill last year that funnels billions to giant agribusinesses. How about corporate welfare, like the Export-Import Bank? Republicans have talked a good game about that of late, but what have they really done? How about payouts in the corporate tax code? Again, lots of chatter but few results. All three of these issues are like immigration -- interest groups want one thing while the public good requires something else. And just watch the Republicans in Congress flock to side of the interest groups.

Meanwhile, the issues where the GOP is reliable -- like taxes and regulation -- are usually those where the party’s interest-group patrons happen to agree with the conservative grassroots.

All of this suggests a huge problem with getting rid of Obamacare. Conservatives worry about average voters being transformed into federal clients through the subsidies -- but what about the industry groups that Obamacare paid off? The insurers, the doctors, the hospitals, the AARP, the pharmaceutical industry, and more? They all donate, quite lavishly in fact, to congressional Republicans. They do not give so many millions out of the kindness of their own hearts. They expect a return on their investment. So don’t be surprised if the GOP win the presidency in 2016, and the party’s proposal to repeal Obamacare turns out to be strong on rhetoric but weak on the specifics. Just like immigration.

In other words, the party’s bad approach to immigration is part of a much larger malady. Our government has grown too big for its britches. The Framers never designed our institutions to exercise so much power, and we should not be surprised that they exercise it irresponsibly. Congress is particularly out of its depth. Members use the vast authority they’ve been given not for the public good, but to reward the interests that lobby them so thoroughly. If conservatives really want to roll back the size and scope of big government, it is this culture -- this interest group society -- that we have to dismantle.