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Paul Ryan is facing immigration trouble from both sides of the aisle

It turns out the aisle is a porous border.

Speaker Paul Ryan with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
“Psst...I heard you signed the petition.”
Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images

The immigration debate in the US has been burning for more than two years. Most recently, it played a role in the failure of the farm bill last Friday. The rebellion by 30 Republican members on Friday’s vote was partly in pursuit of bringing an immigration bill, the Securing America’s Future Act of 2018 (HR 4760), to the floor for consideration.

The bill proposes significant policy changes, including but not limited to:

  • Revising how immigrant visas (including family-related visas) are allocated
  • Eliminating the “diversity visa program
  • Revising annual immigration levels, increasing the amount of employment-based immigration
  • Changing the H-2C temporary agricultural worker program
  • Authorizing DNA testing to establish family relationships

Phew. Take a minute.

While HR 4760, like all immigration policy, is complicated, it is accurate to say that it would tighten limits on immigration. Accordingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, every one of the bill’s 96 co-sponsors is a Republican. That’s more than 40% of the GOP caucus! (Very close to 50 percent: see the Hastert Rule.)

The details of the charge to discharge HR 4760 to the floor are interesting but more than a bit complicated, so I’ll leave the finer details for a future post. What I want to point out today are two simple facts and then the surprising development that, if I were Speaker Ryan, I would be worried about:

  1. Before a discharge petition is effective, a majority of the total membership (218 members) must sign it. Of course, this requires that at least one member of the majority party signs it.
  2. It is incredibly rare for a member of the majority party to sign any discharge petition. It is an (incredibly impotent) “weapon” of the minority. Key point here: The discharge petition for the rule to consider HR 4760 was initiated and first signed by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL). There are (unsurprisingly, given the vote on the farm bill last Friday) GOP dissidents on immigration who are willing to publicly stand against Ryan and the GOP leadership. But intra-partisan warfare on its own is one “inside baseball” thing. Getting these intraparty schisms to the floor requires acquiescence from the minority party — acquiescence, at least in appearances, to a bill that moves policy further from what the minority party wants.

The surprising development

In the past three days, the discharge petition for HR 4760 has gained 12 signatures, bringing it to 213 (just five shy of the required 218). Of those 12 signatures, 10 are from Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer. The House clerk’s office (understandably) makes it hard to figure out the partisanship of the signers of a discharge petition. But given that there are only 193 Democratic members of the House, we can safely conclude that at least 20 Republicans have signed the petition.

And the signatures of Pelosi and Hoyer (minority leader and whip, respectively) are meaningful. They just signed today (May 24, 2018) and more importantly, they are presumably opposed to HR 4760.

Accordingly, what is happening is that the Democratic leadership is “punking” Ryan and the GOP leadership: This bill divides his caucus. I would imagine they also have reason to suspect, with midterms approaching, that the bill will fail but greatly divide the GOP incumbents on what is currently, for the GOP but not the Democrats, a hot-button primary election issue. It’s a strategy of juicing the other side’s primaries, if you will. It only takes five more signatures to make this GOP “grenade” go live.

What is the right policy?

Even on purely economic grounds, immigration is already complicated: Tightening immigration increases wages for voters and accordingly increases labor costs for employers. Regardless of partisan leanings, all districts have both workers and employers. Thus, even leaving both district partisanship and the human benefits and costs of immigration aside, immigration policy has unclear impacts on any district’s economy.

Even with that in hand, many citizens from both sides of the aisle will agree that the proper immigration policy is about more than economic benefits/costs. What’s the right course? In the end, Republican and Democratic members of Congress have to account for and measure out the costs and benefits of having more or less open borders. Ultimately, making this call on policy is tough on even the best of days.

Accordingly, I’ll leave to others, as I always do (especially after I check my pay for blogging about this), the question of the proper policy balance. Instead, my point here is to simply point out what I see to be the trade-offs.

Final thoughts

Before I go, a quick note for those playing at home: A member can take his or her signature off a discharge petition until it has 218 signatures, at which point it is frozen. Thus, this is kind of like a “Tarantino meets House of Cards” storyline in the making: It would be fun if it weren’t centered on such a serious policy matter.

That said, the serenity prayer suggests to me that I grab my popcorn and simply lie back to see how Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Pelosi, and Hoyer work out this waltz. For them and the republic, I wish them and their colleagues godspeed. I suspect they will need divine intervention to fashion a compromise on these issues.