John Dickerson: Lack of trust in Obama didn’t kill immigration reform

07/08/2014 12:00 AM

07/07/2014 6:26 PM

The death of immigration reform comes at a time when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is suing President Obama for exceeding his executive authority. The two are linked.

Boehner and other House Republican leaders who want immigration reform say they couldn’t pass anything because their conference could never believe in a president who oversteps his authority so regularly. Why would the guy who ignored provisions in his health care law when it was politically convenient remain bound to the strict border-enforcement promises that would be required of any immigration reform that could get through the House?

“The American people and their elected officials don’t trust (the president) to enforce the law as written,” Boehner said.

Boehner may have a case to make about executive overreach. We’ll see when he releases his legislation initiating the suit later this month. But that’s not what killed immigration reform. Internal conflicts within the GOP over the issue did.

By making Obama overreach the sole reason for the death of immigration reform, the speaker risks making a legitimate grievance seem political and adaptable to any occasion. Got a leaky roof? Blame Obama overreach.

Opposition within conservative ranks is the No. 1 reason for the lack of progress and dismal outlook for reform. No one wanted to have the internal political fight and risk alienating motivated grassroots voters in a year when Republicans have a chance of winning back control of the Senate.

Part of the backlash would have come from the fact that any legislation that became law would have required making a deal with a president distrusted by conservatives, but on immigration reform they didn’t trust other Republicans either. The voters of the 7th Congressional District in Virginia certainly didn’t trust House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The president’s response to the death of reform in the House was to announce that he will take whatever executive actions possible. But as John Hudak of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, Obama’s ability to go it alone now is limited.

He can move some money from existing accounts to the border to deal with the recent influx of thousands of Central American children. Republicans say that the crisis is the result of just the kind of power move they’re angry about. In a previous executive action, Obama granted children of undocumented immigrants a temporary reprieve from deportation, which gave false hope to the children flocking to the border. (Those children are not eligible for protection, and the president has vowed to return them to their home countries.)

The president has tasked the lawyers at the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to come up with ideas for other actions he might take. If their responses are anything like the unilateral actions on school construction, the minimum wage, or manufacturing that have been a part of Obama’s “year of action,” they will be modest, because the president is constrained by existing statutes. They will do very little to move Obama toward his larger immigration policy goals.

The president’s actions on immigration will hardly fit the “aggressive unilateralism” that Boehner accused him of in his statement announcing his lawsuit.

Obama has said that Boehner’s lawsuit is a stunt, so he likely won’t worry about mounting a serious defense. But if he wanted to get the suit thrown out on the grounds that arguments about presidential overreach are purely political, he could cite the collapse of immigration reform as Exhibit A.

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