Sunday, March 16, 2014

Politics over good government

Recent news stories feature claims that congressional Republicans have voted to force the deportation of spouses of US soldiers (see here and here). As is often the case in stories of this sort, there is actually nothing in the vote relating directly to immigration, let alone military spouses, but the bills could make it easier for Republicans to force such deportations.

Let's look at the two bills quoted in the first source above and see what was really being voted on. Both bills illustrate the dysfunctional and often childish efforts of today's politicians.

The first bill is HR 3973, the "Faithful Execution of the Law Act of 2014." This two page bill says nothing about immigration and doesn't directly deal with the immigration sections of the law. What does the bill do?

The existing law says that the Attorney General must report any time he or the Justice Department choose not to enforce a law because they think it is unconstitutional. The bill makes two changes. It adds "any other Federal Officer" to the people who might choose not to enforce a law and changes "unconstitutional" to "state the grounds for such policy." This bill does not force any deportations. It would require that the Attorney General report to Congress that the government has chosen not to enforce the law. So if the law today says that military spouses who are not in the United States legally can be deported, the Attorney General would have to report this and give Congress a reason for no enforcing the law. Given that administration officials have generally announced to the public that they aren't enforcing laws of this sort, the main effect of this bill will be to generate more paperwork (reading the full current law, the Attorney General ought to be able to generate thousands of pages of trivia by mentioning every time any government official chooses a less than literal treatment of a law, overwhelming Congress with only a small effort.

The second bill is HR 4138, the ENFORCE the Law Act of 2014. While a bit longer, this bill also says nothing directly about immigration. Instead, this is a bill to make it easier for Congress to sue the government in civil court to demand enforcement of a law. It allows one or both houses of Congress to sue in court and sets up streamlined procedures -- the case goes to a three judge panel of a district court, then is appealed directly to the Supreme Court. This bypasses the normal appeal process and will shorten the time before the case is resolved.

This second bill really does two things. First, it gives Congress standing to sue. Courts only take a "real" case, meaning somebody has to have been harmed. A law could be blatantly unconstitutional but if it's never enforced, the courts would have no reason to review it. Members of Congress have been frustrated in the past trying to challenge a law in court because they don't have "standing" to sue. Second, it tries to speed up the process since a case can take years or decades to work its way through the courts.

So these are the two bills. Neither directly relates to immigration but both try to reduce the president's use of executive discretion to enforce or not enforce a law.

So is this a good idea? Obviously, Republicans think it is today. But today the Republican majority in the House is thinking of a Democratic president. What happens if these laws are on the books and a Republican is elected President? Suddenly the Democrats (assuming they control either the House or Senate) have the ability to turn the tables if the Republican President doesn't enforce every law to its literal limit. However, this law doesn't really matter since the Senate will just ignore it. So it's another House political statement vote on legislation which isn't designed to pass, but instead make a statement.

So our short sighted, politics over good government Congress continues its course. Republicans use these bills to enforce arguments that President Obama is not enforcing the law (going so far as to complain because Obamacare, which they oppose, has been illegally delayed). Democrats meanwhile argue the President is using legally allowed discretion when deciding how to enforce the law. In a few years, if the roles are reversed, we'll see the Democrats making the same complaints about a Republican President.