In a June 11th appearance on Good Morning America, Speaker John Boehner commented on the future of comprehensive immigration reform in the House of Representatives, saying, "I believe that it's important for the House to work its will -- on this issue." In a democratic institution, this means, of course, allowing the wishes of the majority of congressmen to prevail. But last Thursday, hours before a bipartisan group of 68 Senators passed a sweeping comprehensive immigration reform bill -- that would put undocumented immigrants on a pathway to citizenship, ensure that companies can hire high-tech talent and farm workers alike, and bolster border security -- Speaker Boehner said something very different. He remarked, in no uncertain terms, "For any legislation, including a conference report, to pass the House, it's going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members."
If Boehner enforces the "Hastert rule" -- a misnomer given that Republican speakers' practice of requiring the support of the majority of their members to put up bills for a vote is not an official rule and was started by Newt Gingrich not the eponymous Dennis Hastert -- he would, by definition, prevent the House from working its will. What do I mean by this? A majority can be attained with the support of just 7 percent of House Republicans. That's right. If the Senate bill is put up to a vote, and all 201 Democrats vote in favor, just 17 out of 234 Republican votes would be necessary for comprehensive immigration reform to move on to President Obama's desk and become the law of the land.
It should not be difficult to find 17 Republican members of Congress willing to sign on to some variation of the Senate's bill. After all, the bill won the backing of prominent Republican senators including Marco Rubio, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham and reform is backed by prominent Republicans nationwide ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Jeb Bush to Condoleezza Rice to Grover Norquist. Republicans face pressure from the business community, which views immigration reform as an economic imperative and internal pressure to address their perceived antagonism to Latinos, the fastest growing demographic and an important electoral bloc.
Passing the bill would be immensely popular, given that according to a recent Gallup poll, a whopping 86 percent of Americans who identify as Democrats or Republicans support immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, not to mention an ever higher 88 percent of independents. Yet, Boehner's enforcement of the Hastert rule would necessitate that 117 Republicans support a comprehensive immigration bill -- a much more challenging proposition considering the number of Tea Party members and Republicans fearing primary challenges from the right.
Speaker Boehner knows that the majority of representatives and the American people alike support comprehensive immigration reform. He has the power to facilitate the passage of a bill in his chamber that moves 12 million people out of a legal limbo, helps American businesses prosper with the talent they need, creates jobs for American citizens and ensures that our border is better secured. Yet, the Speaker clearly fears for his job security, after facing backlash from Republicans after abandoning the Hastert rule to avert the fiscal cliff and being threatened with ouster if he breaks the Hastert rule again on an immigration bill.
Boehner needs to realize that, at the end of the day, there are more important things than holding the speaker's gavel. Chief among them are letting the democratic process work its course and fixing a broken immigration system. Boehner's speakership has been characterized by every synonym for weak and ineffectual. As last week's farm bill fiasco showed, Boehner even faces great difficulty controlling his own Republican caucus. At best, it is hard to imagine Boehner retaining the speakership for more than a few years.
So why doesn't Boehner honor his pledge to let Congress "work its will" democratically and put the interests of the American people first? Sure, he'll ruffle some feathers and might even put his job on the line. But, allowing much needed comprehensive immigration reform to pass would be an important, tangible accomplishment for Boehner's legacy amid the obstructionism, partisan wrangling and pettiness (37 ObamaCare repeal votes, anyone?) that have dominated his tenure. And, after 22 years in the House and a notoriously cozy relationship with lobbyists and corporate America, Boehner would surely have his pick of jobs with seven- or eight-figure salaries if he gets shown the door.
If Boehner doesn't budge, there's always the possibility of a discharge petition to force a vote, whether he likes it or not.