Opinion: Immigration debate provides template for new debt deal

We are currently witnessing a rather unusual happening:  The Senate is debating a bipartisan bill on an important topic (immigration, in this case) and that bill has a reasonable chance of passage.

Since this has happened so rarely in recent years, we should take a hard look at how this came about and how we can replicate the pattern.

ADVERTISEMENT
The immigration debate was started in earnest during the administration of President George W. Bush, who supported proposals broadly similar to those being considered today in the Senate. 

But the real catalyst for the consideration of comprehensive immigration reform was the massive shift in resources in the late 1990s and early 2000s in successive attempts to secure the border. The border patrol was tripled in size and border fences were built in California, Arizona and Texas. 

There was also an attempt to introduce new high-tech surveillance systems along the southern border, at considerable expense. This was all done at a time when thousands of people were crossing into the United States illegally.

This massive increase in funds, people and technology committed to securing the border was, in essence, a “table-setter” that gave some credibility to those who wanted to move on to address not the symptom but the cause of the illegal immigration problem. The cause was, and remains, our incoherent and unenforceable immigration laws.

Now, almost 10 years after the debate was kicked off by Bush, we are seeing Congress, especially the Senate, moving forward. It is not unusual that an issue that is so complex in terms of policy and so intense in terms of the ideological arguments it provokes would take a long time to germinate in our system of incremental government.  

What is unusual is that Congress — rather than the president — has been the source of the energy for pushing the issue.

The president traditionally leads and Congress is usually content to backfill the matter with amendments and ideas that do not drive the core issue but rather nuance it.   

In the matter of immigration reform, the opposite is happening. Almost all the leadership has come from Congress. In the public arena, it has come from the Gang of Eight in the Senate led by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) giving his imprimatur to the effort. In the House, Speaker John Bohener (R-Ohio) has reportedly sponsored a bipartisan working group that is also making considerable progress, albeit behind the scenes.

It bears repeating: The leadership and action on immigration is Congress-driven. This is a very unusual state of affairs.

It is also great news. Along with immigration reform, there is another major issue of even more critical national concern that is ripe for Congressional leadership. 

As with immigration, it is an issue on which a great deal of effort and time has all ready been expended. In a situation analogous to the early actions aimed at securing the border, significant action has occurred to begin to address this second problem, too. But, again, that action has not gone to the core of the issues driving the problem.   

In yet another parallel with the immigration effort, there is a now a strong bipartisan working group, at least in the Senate, that is ready and able to move forward.

The issue, of course, is our long-term debt problem, which will bankrupt our nation if it goes unaddressed. The areas left to be resolved are fundamental reform of Medicare, Medicaid and the tax laws; and, to a lesser degree, reestablishing the solvency of Social Security.  

If Congress can be so constructive and functional on immigration, maybe it can do the same in the area of entitlement and tax reform — and thus debt reduction. 

Maybe all hope is not lost for ye who enter the world of Congress.  The immigration reform debate provides grounds for optimism. Let’s hope that optimism can also be borne out on the equally important issue of fiscal responsibility.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee. He is the CEO of SIFMA, a financial industry lobbying group.