House Speaker Dennis Hastert last week announced at least seven House committees or subcommittees will hold hearings on the immigration bill the Senate passed, in Washington and in other parts of the country, most likely the South and Southwest. Most observers think this move will assure that Congress will not pass immigration legislation before the November election and probably not this year.
The only surprise would be if anyone were really surprised.
To be sure, the call for hearings is an unusual move. When the House and Senate separately pass legislation on an issue, it is common for differences to exist. The leaders of the two houses then appoint members to a conference committee to try to “reconcile” the two versions. Sometimes these conferences deal only with minor technical issues, and sometimes they are knock-down, drag-out battles.
Holding hearings before appointing conference committee members is almost never done.
Reconciling the House and Senate versions was always going to be a tough task, because the differences between the two bills are so great — and the attitudes held by supporters of the two approaches are so deeply entrenched — that many are inclined to see any compromise as betrayal. When different sides are dug in so deeply, compromise is unlikely.
The House bill, of course, is focused only on border enforcement. It doesn’t address what should be done with the 11 million or 12 million immigrants who are already here illegally or adjustments in quotas or programs that would increase the number of permanent or temporary immigrants. The Senate bill includes a “path to citizenship” for current illegals that includes paying back taxes, paying a fine, learning English and going to the end of the line for citizenship. It also incorporates a temporary guest-worker program and higher quotas for legal immigration.
Many supporters of the House approach equate any path to citizenship for those who came here illegally, even one with substantial hurdles, as amnesty, which they oppose unreservedly. They say they believe the amnesty program instituted in 1986 was a major reason for the current influx of illegals, because it sent the message that if you come here illegally you’ll eventually be legalized.
We think unrealistically low quotas for legal immigration, at a time when the U.S. economy was able to absorb many low-wage workers even as unemployment among Americans has been relatively low, played a bigger role. Another key factor is that jobs creation in Mexico significantly lags the number of people ready to join the work force.
But complex phenomena involving millions of people making their own choices seldom have a single direct cause.
If talk radio and street demonstrations are reliable indicators — and they may not be — the American people are as divided and as disinclined to compromise as are many House and Senate members.
Whether further hearings will lead the two sides to dig in deeper or to move toward consensus is impossible to tell. But delaying passage of legislation in such a political climate is probably not a bad idea.