by Lincoln Institute | February 08, 2024

There aren’t many things on which PBS’s Lisa Desjardins, Reason Magazine’s Fiona Harrigan, the Cato Institute, CNN, the LA Times Editorial Board and Fox News agree, but one of them is that our immigration system is dysfunctional. I would argue that the U. S. House of Representatives and the United States Senate are equally dysfunctional in developing legislation to fix it.

There are times when policy trumps (if you’ll forgive my use of the expression) politics, and times when politics trumps policy.

Let’s look at a couple of examples and see if we can discern a workable rationale for deciding which is right in a given circumstance.

The most obvious example of when policy should trump politics is when the nation’s very existence is at stake, such as in wartime. The national interest must prevail over any partisan political interests. Many people like to say that in such cases, we should be bipartisan, but I’d suggest that an even better word for such times would be non-partisan. Not bipartisan, where the two parties preen about their mutual cooperation, but non-partisan, where they simply abandon all references to party and show unity behind a single national effort.

Somewhat lesser crises and emergencies do call for bipartisanship. An example would be the COVID pandemic. President Trump could easily have said that COVID called for us to come together to try to stamp out the virus with a call for national unity. Unfortunately, he missed that opportunity, and it probably cost him his reelection. ,

Category 5 floods and hurricanes likewise call for bipartisanship, although it hasn’t always worked out that way. The financial crisis of 2008 was another major event that called for bipartisanship. It wasn’t quite as existential as a war, but it was nonetheless a true crisis. It required a level of compromise to address it responsibly, and that’s exactly what happened. The official White House website carried this official report: “Congressional leaders announced an agreement on a bipartisan compromise to address the Nation’s financial crisis. The Administration worked closely with Congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle to reach an agreement quickly on legislation approving the government’s purchase of difficult-to-sell assets, such as troubled mortgage-backed securities, from banks and other financial institutions. This agreement is a decisive step that will address underlying problems in our financial system.” That’s the way the executive and legislative branches are supposed to work in disasters and emergencies.

The current border or immigration crisis is the number one issue in the minds of the American people. It’s front and center in the 2024 Presidential election. Does it call for bipartisanship? Or is it better recognized as a political issue, with all the pasturing and rhetoric that implies? It’s a choice, and the choice has been made. There was an attempt to create a bipartisan compromise by Oklahoma US Senator James Lankford and Arizona Senator Kirsten Synema. It took months of negotiation to come up with a bill acceptable to both of the negotiating Senators. Before the 300-page bill was even released, several Republican Senators and House Members said they would vote against it because, in the words of John Avelon of CNN, “they don’t believe that a Democratic president will implement the tough measures they believe are necessary. [But that argument] doesn’t hold water if they really believe that this is the most urgent issue facing our nation. If a Republican is elected next year, they can presumably deal with those deficiencies. Refusing to support a bill that could help solve the problem with concrete measures negotiated by conservative colleagues in the Senate shows a fundamental lack of faith in deliberative democracy. Compromise is not the same thing as surrender.” Now Donald Trump has weighed in, urging all Republicans to oppose it and boasting to welcome the blame for killing it. Even James Lankford himself is falling into line behind Trump.

So the strategic question before us is, is it politically savvy to chose to oppose a less-than-perfect border bill? Killing the bill makes political sense only if it is clear that the majority of the American people are opposed to compromise on this issue. My guess is that they aren’t. If I’m right, then killing the bipartisan border bill is a political blunder that will be identified as the responsibility of the Republican party. Getting on the wrong side of the number one political issue in the country is political malpractice, and it will be costly in November.