the national interest

Conservatives Hate All Legislation Now

WASHINGTON - MARCH 21: Members of Congress hold up signs from the second floor of the Capitol that read
Kill them all, actually. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

One of the novel developments in conservative thought during the Obama years is a burgeoning hatred not merely for government but for lawmaking. Before the Obama era, the ends of crafting laws divided the parties, but the means did not. The process of corralling votes, placating hold-outs, and hammering out compromises was not something either side especially loved — you’ve heard the classic line about watching the sausage get made — but also not something that one side disliked more than the other. But a hatred for lawmaking has emerged in the Obama years, first as a Republican tactic, and then as an apparently genuine belief system.

The distrust for lawmaking is the main argument — wait, “argument” is too strong; maybe premise? — of a rare joint op-ed by Rich Lowry and William Kristol, editors of the National Review and the Weekly Standard. Lowry and Kristol urge House Republicans to kill immigration reform, because passing it would involve legislating, and legislating is bad.

They don’t put it exactly like that, of course. What they say is that the Senate immigration bill is “a stew of deals, payoffs, waivers, and special-interest breaks.” And, yes, that’s true, in the sense that every piece of major legislation is a stew of deals, payoffs, waivers, and special-interest breaks. The 1964 Civil Rights Act certainly was. So were the Reagan tax cuts. So was the Constitution! It’s a big country with lots of people and organizations with different points of view, and cobbling together major support for any far-reaching change is going to involve some wheeling and dealing.

Now, if there are particular side deals or special interests that so offend Kristol and Lowry, they could recommend that House Republicans demand their removal in return for passing a bill. They don’t recommend that, or even name any particular pay-offs. It is, apparently, the idea of special bargaining that vexes them.

The revolt against legislating has its roots in the Republican campaign to oppose President Obama’s major legislation in his first two years. Attacking the stimulus or health-care reform for their legislative trade-offs was a smart rhetorical tactic for the party. It made sense as a tactic because Republicans really wanted to kill the stimulus, health-care reform, and financial reform entirely. “No bill” was the best potential scenario for them.

What is the Republican strategy on immigration? Lowry and Kristol complain that the Senate bill would reduce illegal immigration “by as little as a third or by half at most.” It is true: even the massive “border surge” and adoption of a worker verification system would not eliminate illegal immigration. I’d say this is because, as advocates of reform have always argued, ending illegal immigration is impossible. Perhaps Lowry and Kristol have in mind alternative reforms that would do more to reduce illegal immigration.

But they don’t propose any such alternative methods, other than insisting that illegal immigration be stopped before opening a path to citizenship (without saying how they could accomplish it). The alternative they propose is to Kill the Bill. But this is a puzzle. The Senate bill might reduce illegal immigration by a third to a half compared with the status quo, but the Kill the Bill plan reduces illegal immigration by zero percent relative to the status quo.

Nor do Lowry and Kristol offer a plausible story as to how a better bill will emerge. They have one hand-waving reference to the 2014 midterm elections, which may give Republicans more Senators, but won’t give them a president. In the long run, the proportion of Latino and Asian-American voters will rise and rise.

A rational legislative strategy would consider the relative benefits of a law to maintaining the status quo, and weigh the possibilities of a better bill emerging over time. But tea-party logic simply regards the existence of compromise as disqualifying. The moral purity of opposition has become untethered from any political or policy objective, and appears to have sprouted into an actual freestanding principle.

It’s not such a strongly held principle that it would survive if and when Republicans regain control of government. Lowry, Kristol, and the entire tea party will surely forget their hatred of side deals when they are needed to pass the next tax cuts. But the hatred for legislating has gained a strong enough hold over the conservative mind as to render them unable to consider the merits of any bill at all.

Conservatives Hate All Legislation Now