The revival of legislative debate

The revival of legislative debate
© Greg Nash

Debate is back on Capitol Hill. Say what you will about the president, but his actions, and at times words, have led to what may become the first meaningful bipartisan debate and legislation in years. With the president’s end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in March of this year comes the chance of the first enacted congressional-led immigration reform since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. In September 2017, the president called for both parties in Congress to address immigration issues “in a manner that puts the hardworking citizens of our country first.”

Historically, DACA has not been in the hands of Congress. President Obama, after not garnering the necessary votes for the Dream Act of 2011 due to a Republican filibuster, signed an executive order in 2012 that allowed immigrants in good standing who came to the United States when they were younger than 16 to remain in the country and obtain work permits. Since this executive order, approximately 800,000 young unauthorized immigrants, nearly 80 percent of who immigrated from Mexico at a young age, have enrolled in DACA.

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Interestingly, polls overwhelmingly show that the American public favors letting Dreamers stay in the country, and this support is not particularly partisan. Eighty-four percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents, and 69 percent of Republicans believe that Dreamers should be allowed to stay. There is some debate about their precise status. A majority, 58 percent of respondents, argue that they should become citizens if they meet certain requirements, but another 18 percent think they should become legal residents but not citizens.

If this measure of public opinion is any indication of what lawmakers should do, these numbers imply that the DACA program should continue. They also imply that this debate is not one around whether Dreamers should be allowed to stay, but what form their residency should take. But as last week’s dramatics showed, a DACA bill is not going to be easy.

The fate of the Dreamers is entangled with appropriations for the president’s requested wall, and the future of the diversity lottery, family unification processes, and high-skilled worker immigration. Even if all of this is settled, it is difficult to predict if the president will sign into law any bill that his base could interpret as too soft on immigration. So, the future of DACA and larger immigration reform is uncertain, at best.

Where is the silver lining? As we revere the democratic process and bipartisanship, we must take a moment to revel in the potential for real congressional action that reaches across the aisle. Republicans should take pleasure in overturning an executive action that they labeled as an unconstitutional abuse of presidential power, and Democrats, as the minority party, should consider it a major feat to get DACA on the congressional agenda at all in a year when partisanship has been at an all-time high.

Moreover, both parties should be ecstatic that they could pass a major bill that the nation nearly unanimously supports. DACA as policy is not contentious (though it will be in some states and House districts), and if lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remember that their job is to represent the demands of the citizens, the reauthorization of DACA will receive overwhelming support.

Finally, the American people should be cautiously optimistic that their government is finally debating a topic where there is room for bipartisanship. Our government can make real lasting change that nearly all Americans, regardless of party, support. Only time will tell if our optimism is well founded.

Joseph J. Minarik (@JoeMinarik) is senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development. He served as chief economist at the White House Office of Management and Budget for eight years under President Clinton. He previously worked with Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) on his efforts to reform the federal income tax, which culminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. He is coauthor of “Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity.”