Wonkbook: Obama isn’t leading on immigration, and that’s a good thing

April 17, 2013

Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.

(EPA/Michael Reynolds)
(EPA/Michael Reynolds)

A common trope in Washington is that to achieve any particular end, the president must "lead." If the end in question is not being achieved, then it is because the president is not doing enough leading.

At the outset, immigration was also considered a simple question of presidential leadership."On an issue this big, the president has to lead," said House Speaker John Boehner.

The president hasn't been leading. Or, if he's been leading, he's been leading from behind, permitting Sens. Chuck Schumer and John McCain and Marco Rubio to spearhead the effort. And it's been the exact right move.

Presidential leadership is a polarizing force. Political scientist Frances Lee has shown that when presidents take public positions on even non-controversial subjects, the chances of a party-line vote skyrocket. By campaigning for an idea, the president associates its success with his success. Because the president's success typically decides his party's success in the next election, his success is the other party's failure. And so the minority party, which understandably does not want to fail, has little reason to cooperate.

This creates an almost comically vicious cycle wherein presidential leadership pushes the minority party away from a bill, the minority party's opposition throws the bill's prospects into doubt, and so the commentariat fills with more calls for the president to lead harder and more aggressively -- which only adds further fuel to the process of presidential polarization.

President Obama has correctly scrambled these incentives on immigration. Today, the success of immigration reform is considered the success of the Gang of Eight, not of Obama. The potential presidential candidate with the most to gain is Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican. The immigration bill came out of Sen. Chuck Schumer's office, not the White House.

This will be even more important if and when immigration reaches the House. Speaker John Boehner and his members might see real political upside in helping Sen. Marco Rubio secure a massive achievement and proving that the Republican Party is not opposed to a humane immigration system. They would not see much political upside in helping President Obama fulfill a campaign promise and prove that if you want to get immigration reform done, vote for a Democratic president.

Sometimes, the most effective form of presidential leadership is for the president to let someone else take the lead.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 6. That's how many undecided lawmakers are left on the Manchin-Toomey background check amendment that will see a Senate vote today. All of them will need to vote for the compromise if it is to clear the 60 vote threshold. More on gun control below.

Wonkblog's Graph of the Day: The Boston Marathon bombs went off at one of the busiest moments at the finish line.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) a full Wonkbook primer on the released immigration reform bill; 2) Senate voting on gun control today;  3) why is Congress at a budget standstill?; 4) is the case for austerity gone?; and 5) how the IMF understands this economy.

1) Top story:

A primer on immigration reform

Senators release immigration reform plan. "The highly anticipated proposal from an eight-member bipartisan group also aims to stem the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country by creating tens of thousands of new visas for foreign workers in low-skilled jobs, according to a 17-page summary of the bill obtained by The Washington Post. In addition, billions of dollars would be invested in new border-control measures, including surveillance drones, security fencing and 3,500 additional federal agents charged with apprehending people attempting to enter illegally from Mexico." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

Read: The full bill.

Explainer: Wonkblog's primer on the billDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Is the bill's 'path to citizenship' too long? "Ahead of the expected release Tuesday of a sweeping bipartisan proposal to revamp the nation’s immigration laws, faith-based and civil liberties groups began calling for changes, singling out the proposed path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as too stringent, while a key Republican senator said lawmakers need to be “realistic” about creating such a path." David Nakamura, Sean Sullivan, and Aaron C. Davis in The Washington Post.

Debate: The economics of immigrationThe New York Times.

Immigration reform has a price tag. Is that a problem? "The price tag of a bipartisan proposal to overhaul immigration laws—and whether it will be fully paid for—could be critical to wooing additional GOP lawmakers to sign on to the plan. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has yet to formally evaluate the cost, but a Senate aide estimated Tuesday that it would cost $17 billion over a decade. Lawmakers and aides said fines and fees would cover that cost and possibly generate a few billion extra. The bill's final price tag is likely to draw particular scrutiny from conservative lawmakers in the House, where budget-cutting has been a top goal." Sara Murray in The Wall Street Journal.

How this bill changes the focus of immigration policy. "A sweeping immigration bill that a bipartisan group of eight senators completed on Tuesday seeks not only to fix chronic problems in the system and bring an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to the right side of the law. It would also reorient future immigration with the goal of bringing foreigners to the country based increasingly on the job skills and personal assets they can offer...For the first time, the legislation would create a merit-based program to award the visa for legal permanent residents, known as a green card, based on a point system." Julia Preston in The New York Times.

How opponents are working to kill the bill. "Leading Capitol Hill opponents of a Senate proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration system are coalescing around a strategy to kill the bill by delaying the legislative process as long as possible, providing time to offer “poison pill” amendments aimed at breaking apart the fragile bipartisan group that developed the plan, according to lawmakers and legislative aides." David Nakamura and Aaron C. Davis in The Washington Post.

The details of the immigration reform bill

No visas for same-sex spouses. "The Senate group proposal [will] not include a new category of visas for same-sex foreign national spouses of U.S. citizens, who are not able to apply for such visas under current laws. An estimated 40,000 foreign nationals are caught in limbo because federal law does not provide spousal benefits to same-sex couples under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)...[A]dvocates said they now will focus on pressuring Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill will be marked up, to offer an amendment to the bill with the new protections." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

E-Verify expanded. "[T]he bill would require companies with more than 5,000 employees to adopt the system within two years. Those with 500 employees would get three years and all employers, including those in agriculture, would need to do so within four years...Photo-matching is less expensive for employers — and potentially less invasive-feeling for workers — than finger-printing, which had been considered by senators during their extensive negotiations." Rosalind S. Helderman in The Washington Post.

Penalties set for illegal immigrants. "Those now in the country illegally would be required to pay an initial $500 fine to achieve a provisional legal status. They would also have to pay “assessed taxes” and “applicable fees” to cover the cost of processing the application, but the summary of the legislation, set to be introduced later Monday, does not provide further details.After six years in provisional status, immigrants could renew their authorization, but only if they paid another $500 fine. When they sought permanent residency — estimated to occur in about a decade — they would pay a final $1,000 fine. As a result, they would over time pay a total of $2,000 in fines, in addition to other processing fees." Rosalind S. Helderman in The Washington Post.

A special path for DREAMers. "[Y]oung adults would be allowed to quickly enter a provisional legal status, which would allow them to live and work freely in the United States. After five years, they could seek a green card, which would allow permanent legal residency. They could then apply simultaneously for citizenship...DREAMers would also be exempted from fines imposed on other immigrants." Rosalind S. Helderman in The Washington Post.

The changes to high-skilled immigration. "The compromise would lift the cap from 65,000 to 110,000 – with the number permitted to rise as high as 180,000 in future years...[F]irms that have more than half of their U.S. workers on the visas will be banned from applying for additional visas. Many other firms would be required to pay their foreign workers more, and face stiffer requirements that they advertise first for American workers before being granted a new visa." Rachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

Urban interlude: Inequality along the NYC subway.

Music recommendations interlude: Jeff Beck, "Beck's Bolero," 1967.

Top op-eds

MONE: No going back to the taxes of the 1950s. "[A] new study by Columbia University's Arpit Gupta, "Revisiting the High Tax Rates of the 1950s," written for the Manhattan Institute, calls into serious question the notion that affluent Americans bore a higher tax burden than they do today...It is not even clear that the tax regime of the 1950s was, taken as a whole, effectively more progressive than the present one." Lawrence Mone in The Wall Street Journal.

BARRO: Can manufacturing save us from job polarization? "Many observers (including me) have tended to assume this phenomenon was driven mainly by sectoral changes in the economy: Manufacturing and related industries tend to require a lot of middle-skill workers, while service industries are more dependent on high- and low-skill workers...But a new paper from Didem Tüzemen and Jonathan Willis, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, shows that assumption is wrong. They find that only a third of the last 30 years’ shift away from middle-skill employment was due to sectoral changes. Two-thirds of the shift can be attributed to changes within sectors." Josh Barro in Bloomberg.

DOWNIE: The crumbling intellectual foundations of austerity. "[O]n the heels of news that the International Monetary Fund is cutting global growth forecasts, in no small part because of austerity, an important new paper suggests that a key historical study long cited by austerity backers as evidence for prioritizing debt reduction has serious problems...[T]hese empirical issues would ideally lead debt hawks to reassess their fears, and hopefully let President Obama and other policymakers focus on what should be their top priority: getting Americans back to work." James Downie in The Washington Post.

PORTER: Perfection is enemy of good immigration reform. "[T]o the paperless immigrants of the San Joaquin Valley — harvesting asparagus or lettuce; picking cherries or grapes — the insistence on a path to citizenship for a few hundred thousand guest workers six years ago ended up blocking the achievement of their most important goal. The demand for perfection became the enemy of the good...Yet as Americans consider the broad attempt at changing the nation’s immigration laws, it is important to weigh any discomfort at specific provisions against the alternative of no reform at all." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

LEVI: Why more U.S. oil may not mean cheaper natural gas. "[W]hy isn’t everyone predicting plummeting prices? Because when U.S. oil production rises, other countries’ output usually falls, with the net result being a much smaller increase in world supplies, and hence less effect on prices. Part of this is driven by markets: More U.S. oil means lower prices; lower prices render some oil projects economically unattractive; those either shut down or don’t reach production in the first place...There is a chance, however, that the dynamic could actually run the other way, leading to even-deeper price cuts: Big-enough gains in global oil production could spark a battle among OPEC members and other big producers for market share, leading to a crash in world prices." Michael Levi in Bloomberg.

2) Today, gun control gets a vote

Senate votes today on gun control. "The Senate will vote Wednesday afternoon on what could be the biggest changes in U.S. gun laws in nearly 20 years. Senators will take up the proposal from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks on firearm purchases and close the so-called gun show loophole. The bipartisan plan is likely the strongest gun control bill that can pass this Congress, although it’s far weaker than the White House and many Democrats hoped for...Voting on the Manchin-Toomey propsal is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m." John Bresnahan in Politico

...And here's the deal with amendments to the bill. "Senate leaders reached an agreement late Tuesday to hold up-or-down votes in the coming days on nine proposed changes to gun legislation under consideration...[V]otes [are coming] on a bipartisan proposal to expand gun background checks to cover most commercial gun sales...Democratic plans to ban military-style assault weapons and limit the size of ammunition magazines; and a bipartisan amendment that would make minor changes to the bill’s provisions regarding gun trafficking. Then, senators will consider four GOP-backed amendments, including a plan to permit gun owners who receives a permit to carry a concealed weapon in one state to do so in other states that issued concealed carry permits and other plans regarding the privacy of gun owners and funding for mental health programs." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

@mattyglesias: Remember even if a gun bill passes the senate, it won’t pass the house & it’s so watered-down already it won’t make a difference anyway.

Background checks look to be in trouble. "In a blow to supporters, Sen. Dean Heller (R., Nev.) said late Tuesday he won't support the amendment. Only Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R., N.H.) and five Democrats have yet to say how they plan to vote on the measure. So far, 48 Democrats and two independents have said they back the amendment...If Messrs. Lautenberg and McCain both vote for the measure, Democrats would need all six of the undecided lawmakers to overcome the 60-vote threshold." Kristina Peterson and Janet Hook in The Wall Street Journal.

@samsteinhp: the gun control debate is a testament to the power of senators from rural states

Why gun laws are so hard to pass. "Gun owners are far more politically engaged than are those in households without guns, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a chasm that goes a long way toward explaining the seeming disconnect between Congress and the American public when it comes to reforming the country’s firearms laws." Peyton Craighill and Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Award-winning interlude: 2013 Pulitzer Prize winners.

3) Standstill on budget

No budget deal being planned, Ryan says. "House Republicans have no plans to appoint a conference committee to hammer out a budget deal with Senate Democrats, Rep. Paul Ryan said Tuesday, arguing that the move is pointless unless private talks bring the two sides closer to agreement...If a conference committee fails to produce legislation within 20 days, the door opens to a flood of nonbinding motions that are often designed to force embarrassing votes for use in campaign ads." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

Obama to dine with Democratic senators tonight. "President Obama will expand his charm offensive to his own party Wednesday night when he breaks bread with 12 Democratic senators at the upscale Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington. Obama’s dinner with Democrats, just weeks after two recent dinners he held with a dozen Republican senators each, comes as he is promoting his budget." Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

Animal interlude: Imitations of Grumpy Cat.

4) Is the case for austerity demolished?

Study that set tone for austerity is challenged. "The controversy stems from a provocative new paper by economists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst that claims to have found some basic errors in one of the most pathbreaking and influential economic studies to come out in the last few years. That was a 2010 research paper by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard...The economists, analyzing 3,700 separate economic observations, found...[that] for countries with debt loads equivalent to or greater than 90 percent of annual economic output, “median growth rates fall by 1 percent, and average growth falls considerably more.”" Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Read the papers: Reinhart and Rogoff, "Growth in a Time of Debt"; Herndon, Ash, and Pollin, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff."

What's the challenge? "In a new paper, [the three economists] successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadsheet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed. They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result." Mike Konczal for the Roosevelt Institute.

Read: The initial response from Reinhart and RogoffThe New York Times.

Explainer: A broad overview of the debateBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

...And why this matters a lot. "This is a big deal because politicians around the world have used this finding from R&R to justify austerity measures that have slowed growth and raised unemployment. In the United States many politicians have pointed to R&R's work as justification for deficit reduction even though the economy is far below full employment by any reasonable measure. In Europe, R&R's work and its derivatives have been used to justify austerity policies that have pushed the unemployment rate over 10 percent for the euro zone as a whole and above 20 percent in Greece and Spain. In other words, this is a mistake that has had enormous consequences." Dean Baker for CEPR.

More urban interlude: Old New York, in photography.

5) How the IMF understands this economy

How the IMF became the friend who wants us to work less and drink more. "The International Monetary Fund has a reputation, hard earned over the decades, of being the annoying friend who is always telling you to be more responsible...Cut those deficits! Let’s see some tighter monetary policy! Do you really need such a generous public welfare system? But something strange has changed in the world economy, which is evident in the Fund’s latest edition of the World Economic Outlook. The IMF is now among the strongest voices against excessive fiscal austerity and tight money." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Read: The IMF's latest World Economic Outlook.

What the IMF will be thinking about in its meeting this week. "The IMF has been criticized for not doing more to raise warnings about some of the financial trends that led the United States into trouble. Since then, Blanchard and others at the agency have tried to assess where they erred. They are looking at mistakes in the calculation of “fiscal multipliers,” for example, and trying to get ahead of the curve in determining how the massive monetary stimulus undertaken by central banks in recent years might cause problems down the road. Blanchard this week is hosting the second such exercise in as many years, gathering central bankers, academics, investors and others to see what set of policies might replace those that created an era known as “the Great Moderation” before it immoderately blew up in 2008." Howard Schneider in The Washington Post.

IMF lowers estimates for global growth in 2013. "[I]t expected global growth of about 3.3 percent this year and 4 percent in 2014. That is a reduction of 0.2 percentage point since its January estimate for 2013; it did not change its estimate for next year’s growth." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Is economic growth weakening in the U.S.? "Consumer prices fell in March for the first time in four months and industrial production slipped, strengthening the argument for the Federal Reserve Board to maintain its monetary stimulus to speed up economic growth. Other data released on Tuesday suggested that the housing market recovery was losing momentum, even though builders started work on new homes at an annual rate of more than one million units for the first time since June 2008." Reuters.

...They call it the 'Spring Swoon.' "For the third year in a row, the nation’s economic recovery seems to be petering out just as temperatures start to go up. Hiring has dropped off. Shoppers are putting away their wallets. Government spending cuts are looming. That has fueled predictions of an abrupt slowdown over the next few months. Economists are forecasting tepid growth of just over 1 percent during the second quarter of the year. The economy was expanding at roughly twice that pace over the winter. In fact, although the drivers have been different, the slowdowns have become so reliable, and the timing so consistent, that economists have given them a name: the spring swoon." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Tame inflation, though, may give the Fed more room for action. "The latest reading on consumer prices could give the Federal Reserve a new reason to keep its easy-money policies intact—inflation shows signs of slowing. The Labor Department's consumer-price index was up 1.5% in March from a year earlier, the fourth time in five months that it has been below the Fed's 2% inflation goal. And while the core reading on consumer costs, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, was up 1.9%, it also remained below the goal for the fourth time in five months." Jon Hilsenrath in The Wall Street Journal.

Industrial output was mixed in March. "Industrial output increased 0.4% last month and capacity utilization rose to 78.5% from 78.3% the prior month on a seasonally adjusted basis, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday. Both readings were slightly better than economists had forecast. But the better-than-expected figures were entirely due to robust utility production. The output of utilities jumped 5.3% because "unusually cold weather drove up heating demand," the Fed said." Eric Morath and Jessica Holzer in The Wall Street Journal.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

Interviews: Bruce Schneier, security expert and author and Jonathan Cohn on child careEzra Klein, Dylan Matthews.

8 facts about terrorism in the United StatesBrad Plumer.

Wonktalk: Is there a way to find out what laws actually workBrad Plumer and Dylan Matthews.

How the IMF became the friend who wants us to work less and drink more. Neil Irwin.

The Senate immigration bill: Here’s what you need to knowDylan Matthews.

Is the evidence for austerity based on an Excel spreadsheet errorBrad Plumer.

Can we have an evidence-based government? Jim Tankersley and Dylan Matthews.

When your surgery goes wrong, hospitals profitSarah Kliff.

Hospitals serving the uninsured face challenge under ObamacareSarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

What is a national ocean policy? Here's why you should knowJuliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Why is the GOP healthier at the state levelNate Silver in The New York Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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