How the IRS scandal helped immigration reform

May 24, 2013

On Wednesday the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would comprehensively overhaul the country's immigration system. It was a major step for a Congress that has shown an inability to do just about anything over the past few years. You probably missed it.


The immigration bill's forward progress -- it now heads to a full floor debate next month -- was entirely drowned out by a series of House and Senate committee hearings on the IRS' acknowledged targeting of conservative groups.  That drowning out, however, was, quite simply, the best thing that could have possibly happened for the immigration bill. In fact, without it, the immigration legislation's path out of committee might not have been so smooth.

The simple fact is that political Washington really can't pay attention to two big stories at once. Or, more accurately, it can't fight two battles simultaneously. It can't walk and chew gum.

As soon as the IRS story broke 14 days ago, it became clear that the conservative energy in (and out) of Congress was going to be dedicated to getting to the bottom -- or maybe the middle -- of what happened. (Remember that it was conservative talk radio that doomed the last attempt to reform the immigration system in 2007.)

Congress, at least in its modern incarnation, tends to act like a moth drawn to a flame. It is a reactive institution -- by and large taking action (or giving off the appearance of taking action) on issues that the public seems concerned about. Members of Congress pay attention to what they think their constituents want them to pay attention to -- because they believe, probably rightly, that appearing to do the will of the American public (even if that will is somewhat scattershot) is the best course to re-election.

And, if Congress was focused on the IRS, it wasn't focused on immigration.  That meant questions about border security and, especially, the inclusion of a path to citizenship in the legislation didn't engender the fight they might have otherwise.

Supporters of comprehensive immigration reform admit that the bill benefited from the IRS scandal in the near term but fear the long term implications of the ongoing investigation into the nation's tax-collecting agency.

"I think it hurts as it exacerbates distrust in government," said one source supportive of comprehensive immigration reform. "This is problematic because people on the right need to have confidence government can implement [immigration reform]."

The truth is that the forces opposed to the immigration bill -- led by Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions -- were always likely to wait until the legislation hit the Senate floor before making their strongest case against it.

But, what's also clear is that the legislation took far fewer direct political hits during the committee process than even many of its most ardent supporters believed it would.  If immigration reform passes, it will have received a major assist from Lois Lerner and the rest of the IRS.

Fixbits:

Ken Corbin will take over at the IRS for Lois Lerner, who was placed on administrative leave.

President Obama said the U.S. has reached a "crossroads" in the fight against terrorism.

The founder of Code Pink repeatedly heckled Obama's speech.

Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly signed off on a controversial search warrant involving a Fox News reporter.

Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will tour the process of recovery from Hurricane Sandy next week.

The Boy Scouts ended its ban on openly gay youths. But the ban on gay adult leaders remains.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) spoke in Iowa.

One of the Navy's next destroyers will be named for late former senator Daniel Inouye.

Must-reads:

"Analysis: Obama expresses regrets but seeks to retain anti-terror powers" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Republican Blueprint for 2014? Scandal, Most of the Time" -- Alex Roarty, National Journal

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Sean Sullivan | May 23, 2013