Wonkbook: Could the scandals help immigration reform?

May 21, 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.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Moore, Oklahoma.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll confirms the findings of the Gallup and CNN polls before it: President Obama's approval ratings are curiously unchanged by the ongoing furors over the IRS, DOJ, and Benghazi. His approval rating is holding at 51 percent, even as 55 percent think his administration is covering up the truth about these issues.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

That 51 percent reappears when people are asked whether Obama is concentrating on issues of importance to them. By contrast, 60 percent say Republicans in Congress are not concentrating on issues of importance to them.

The other key finding is that attitudes toward the economy are brightening. Fifty-six percent think the economy is recovering. Perhaps more importantly, 66 percent feel optimistic about their family's situation over the next year.

All this might be good news for...immigration.

The recent spate of polls has outlined a clear danger for the Republican Party: The American people will come to believe they're more interested in posturing over trumped-up scandals than in actually working on the tough issues facing the country. It's already common to hear elected Republicans considering impeachment, which puts them, to say the least, far ahead of where the public is on these issues.

The leadership of the Republican Party remembers full well what happens when the American people conclude they're obsessed with bringing down a president rather than governing. It doesn't go well for them. And so if their members are going to spend the next few months obsessing over Benghazi and the IRS, they need to be able to clearly, even ostentatiously, show that they're governing, too. Immigration reform offers them the best chance to do that.

It hasn't gotten much attention lately, but as you'll read in Wonkbook today, the immigration legislation has continued grinding its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee. A vote to send it to the floor is expected by the end of this week. The House negotiators are also said to be near a deal.

Republican leaders now have even more incentive to see that that process continues, as it's their best evidence that they are remaining focused on solving tough problems in a bipartisan way even as they try to investigate the White House. If immigration falls apart, however, all Republicans will really be doing is investigating scandals. That's a dangerous place for them to be.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 27 percent. That's the share of college grads who have a job related to their major, according to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Wonkblog's Graphs of the Day: The Washington Post's special graphic feature on "the state of immigration."

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) immigration reform kicks into high gear; 2) energy policy under Moniz; 3) key health regulations drawn up; 4) the next step for scandal investigations; and 5) how Apple evades corporate taxes.

1) Top story: Immigration legislation to get voted on in committee this week

Debate moves to legalization. "The Senate Judiciary Committee late Monday opened debate on legalization provisions for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, edging closer to the end of a marathon markup for the Gang of Eight bill. The legalization section of the wide-ranging bill is the final of the four parts that the Senate Judiciary Committee will wade through before it moves to pass the overall legislation — a vote that is expected near the end of the week." Seung Min Kim and Carrie Budoff Brown in Politico.

Senate panel agrees to more changes to immigration reform in response to Boston bombing. "The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the amendment by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would terminate the asylum or refugee status of anyone who returns to their home country...The committee last week approved another amendment written in the wake of the Boston attack that would prevent lapses in information-sharing about foreign students when their immigration status changes while they are in the United States." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

...Also approved: fingerprinting immigrants at 30 major airports. "The plan approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee is a concession to Republicans and some Democrats who support establishing a nationwide biometric tracking system at all U.S. air, sea and land ports of entry, a key recommendation made by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to track potential terrorists entering or leaving the country." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

@markknoller: Tomorrow at the WH: Focus on immigration reform as Pres Obama meets with "DREAMers" - undocumented young people granted Deferred Action.

Immigration-agent union fights bill. "The National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, which represents the agents who issue and handle immigration documents, is for the first time joining the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council and will announce its position against the bill on Monday. Combined, the two unions represent 20,000 Department of Homeland Security employees charged with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws." Kevin Robillard in Politico.

Customs and Border Protection finds way around furloughs. "U.S. Customs and Border Protection has submitted a plan to Congress that would eliminate sequester furloughs for the agency despite the $600 million in cuts it will have to make under the automatic spending reductions.The cuts would still include a hiring freeze for non-frontline personnel, a hold on monetary awards and limited overtime reductions, according to an internal memo Friday from CBP deputy commissioner Thomas S. Winkowski." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Sen. Hatch, a key figure in immigration reform. "As proponents of a new immigration overhaul cast about for a Republican ally to help give their bill an extra boost, they have focused on a 79-year-old lawmaker with new hipster glasses (from Costco), black Nike sneakers (for his bad arches) and, perhaps most important, a deep and complicated relationship with immigration policy: Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah." Ashley Parker in The New York Times.

MILBANK: Jeff Sessions is fighting the inevitable. "Not since George Wallace, perhaps, has an Alabamian taken as passionate a stand for a lost cause as the one Jeff Sessions is taking now...The wiry Southerner is on a one-man crusade to undo the compromise drafted by the Gang of Eight (four of whom, two Democrats and two Republicans, are colleagues on the committee)." Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Eric Clapton, "Before You Accuse Me," 1989.

Top op-eds

FRANKEL: The myth of 'expansionary austerity.' "A new attack on Alesina’s econometric findings comes from an unlikely source. Perotti, his co-author on two articles, has now recanted, owing to methodological problems (which also affect Alesina’s later papers with Ardagna). Under the dating scheme that they used, the same year can count as a consolidation year, a pre-consolidation year, and a post-consolidation year, and it turns out that some of what they treated as large spending-based consolidations were, in fact, never implemented. Currency devaluation, reduced labor costs, and export stimulus played an important part in any instances of growth (for example, the touted stabilizations of Denmark and Ireland in the 1980’s)." Jeffrey Frankel in Project Syndicate.

SUNSTEIN: How to humble a wing nut. "[C]onsider an intriguing study by Philip Fernbach, a University of Colorado business school professor, and his colleagues. Their central finding is that if you ask people to explain exactly why they think as they do, they discover how much they don’t know -- and they become more humble and therefore more moderate...On every issue, the result of requesting an explanation was to persuade people to give a lower rating of their own understanding -- and to offer a more moderate view on each issue." Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

PONNURU: The boomerang effect of Obama's scandals. "Finally, many Republicans think, the tide is turning against the Democrats. Republican strategists -- and the few conservatives on Capitol Hill who were in Washington during the Clinton years -- are less excited. They fear that the party is about to repeat the mistakes it made in 1998...Republicans have similar vulnerabilities on the issues now. They have no real health-care agenda. Voters don’t trust them to look out for middle-class economic interests. Republicans are confused and divided about how to solve the party’s problems. What they can do is unite in opposition to the Obama administration’s scandals and mistakes. So that’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to win news cycles when they need votes." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

BROOKS: What our words tell us. "[T]he story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently." David Brooks in The New York Times.

RIVKIN AND CASEY: The IRS and free speech. "The unfolding IRS scandal is a symptom, not the disease. For decades, campaign-finance reform zealots have sought to limit core political speech through spending limits and disclosure requirements. More recently, they have claimed that it is wrong and dangerous for tax-exempt entities to engage in political speech...This IRS politicization is not an isolated problem. It is an inevitable result of the broader efforts to regulate and, in fact, suppress political speech." David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey in The Wall Street Journal.

ROBINSON: Obama admin. mistakes journalism for espionage. "The Obama administration has no business rummaging through journalists’ phone records, perusing their e-mails and tracking their movements in an attempt to keep them from gathering news. This heavy-handed business isn’t chilling, it’s just plain cold." Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post.

Less-than-adorable animals interlude: What snake venom does to blood.

2) Welcome to the Moniz era! Here's a full briefing on energy policy.

The Moniz era begins. "Ernest Moniz will be sworn in as the next Energy Secretary on Tuesday, and a day later will go on-the-record publicly for the first time in his new role...Then, on Wednesday afternoon, he will do a “town hall” event with DOE employees, and the question-and-answer event will be webcast, giving the press and other observers a chance to gauge his plans and views as secretary." Ben German in The Hill.

On climate change, Obama is pressed from the left. "If you want to get a sense of how impatient some of President Obama’s most loyal supporters are getting when it comes to climate change, consider this: They’re planning to conduct protests at meetings of the grassroots advocacy organization run by his former top campaign aides." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

...But what's the best way to pass a climate bill? Fix the economy first. "Grant Jacobsen of the University of Oregon took a look at the voting records of 296 senators between 1976 and 2008. He then checked the local unemployment rate in each senator’s state, and matched them up to the “green scores” that were given to each senator by the League of Conservation Voters. The result? “A one point increase in the [state] unemployment rate leads to a statistically significant 0.48 point decline in the LCV score of the average senator.”" Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

EPA to publish low-sulfur gas rule. "A proposed rule intended to cut pollution from automobiles is to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register, nearly two months after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) detailed the draft regulations.  Interested parties and members of the public have until June 13 to weigh in on the 1572-page proposal to require lower sulfur content in fuel. First announced on March 29, the contentious proposal endeavors to reduce smog, soot and toxic pollution. Refiners would be forced to lower sulfur content of gasoline by more than 60 percent to 10 parts per million by 2017.Ben Goad in The Hill.

Solar industry looks to avoid U.S.-E.U.-China trade war. "An international group of solar industry trade associations meeting in Shanghai last week has issued a joint declaration appealing to China, the European Union and the United States to avert a trade war and negotiate a settlement to disputes over solar panels, according to one person who attended the meeting. The groups also urged the creation of a permanent inter-governmental committee, modeled on one in the semiconductor industry, to address solar competitiveness issues...The appeal comes amid rising tension over EU and U.S. tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels." Steven Mufson in The Washington Post.

Joke travel interlude: What is "Swedishness"?

3) Key health care regulations set for publication

Big health care regs move forward. "Final rules written to extend access to insurance for people with pre-existing conditions and set maximum profit margins for certain providers are set to be published this week in the Federal Register...Beginning in 2014, insurance providers would not be able to deny coverage for people with pre-existing conditions that currently make it impossible for them to get health insurance under current market realities...Overhead expenses and profits would be capped at 15 percent.Ben Goad in The Hill.

Sebelius touts Obamacare to Europe. "Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius praised the Affordable Care Act in Europe Monday as a major step forward for universal healthcare coverage. Sebelius invoked the law during a trip to Geneva, where she represented the United States at the World Health Assembly. In a speech, President Obama's top health official characterized the Affordable Care Act as part of a global movement toward better health through government-led reform." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

The Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan is in trouble. "The administration had predicted that up to 400,000 people would enroll in the program, created by the 2010 health care law. In fact, about 135,000 have enrolled, but the cost of their claims has far exceeded White House estimates, exhausting most of the $5 billion provided by Congress." Robert Pear in The New York Times.

Analysis: For most young people, premiums won't rise due to health law. "Predictions of massive "rate shock" as a result of President Obama's healthcare law have been overblown, according to new analysis from the Center for American Progress (CAP). CAP, a liberal think tank, said higher costs will only affect about 3 percent of people between ages 19 and 29." Sam Baker in The Hill.

...And another study finds the rise of the emergency room. "Emergency departments (EDs) play an increasingly important role in U.S. healthcare by sorting through possible hospital admissions and supplementing the work of primary care doctors, according to a new study. The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, found that emergency rooms (ERs) accounted for almost all growth in hospital admissions between 2003 and 2009." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Oregon might have Washington's favorite health exchange. "This is pretty close to what the Obama administration dreams of: Insurance plans looking to woo millions of new customers—and slashing their rates in the process. It’s also a relative rarity at this point. Of the half-dozen or so states that have made public their 2014 health insurance premiums, Oregon is the only place where I’ve seen insurance plans ask to reduce their rates." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Health law 'navigators' come under fire. "Critics see the navigators as potential competitors to insurance brokers, and say that they are effectively federal government employees who should be subject to rigorous screening. The Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is planning to grill the Department of Health and Human Services about the program in a hearing Tuesday. At a private briefing with federal officials last month, committee aides say they were told there would be no criminal background checks for navigators or requirements that they hold a high-school diploma." Louise Radnofsky in The Wall Street Journal.

More state-of-the-art math interlude: The twin-primes conjecture.

4) Where we stand on the scandal investigations

Senators ask ex-IRS chief to detail communications with White House. "Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who lead the Finance Committee, wrote to Steven T. Miller on Monday making 41 specific requests for information. They include documentation of all attempts to elicit information from groups seeking tax-exempt status; a list of all the words and phrases used to target applicants for additional scrutiny; how IRS officials discovered that employees were inappropriately targeting certain groups; and all internal communications between employees working to review the groups.." Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

Here's why the 'scandals' aren't affecting Obama's poll numbers. "The public’s reaction to the scandals is, in other words, being mediated by their reaction to Obama. If they approve of Obama, they’re inclined to believe that neither he nor anyone in his circle ordered the IRS to attack tea party groups and that the administration did its best in the immediate aftermath of Benghazi. If they disapprove of Obama, they’re inclined to believe he or someone in his circle was controlling the IRS, and that the Benghazi talking points were part of a cover-up." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

White House knew of IRS probe findings earlier. "The White House offered a new account Monday of how and when it learned that the Internal Revenue Service had improperly targeted conservative groups, saying that some senior officials were informed of the findings but that President Obama was not...White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other top officials about the IRS findings nearly a month ago, press secretary Jay Carney said Monday. Ruemmler decided the information should not be transmitted to the president because the IRS inspector general’s report was not finished, he said." Zachary A. Goldfarb and Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Practical ethics interlude: Wonkbook wants to know if, in light of this finding, it's unethical for the childless to put photos of a baby in one's wallet.

5) How Apple evades corporate taxes

Apple's corporate-tax dodge. "Apple used a “complex web” of offshore entities — with no employees or physical offices — that allowed it to pay little or no taxes on tens of billions it earned overseas, according to a Senate investigation unveiled Monday. Between 2009 and 2012, the company shielded at least $74 billion in profits from U.S. tax laws by setting up subsidiaries in Ireland under a special arrangement, the report said. While the practice of using foreign operations to avoid U.S. taxes is legal and common among multinationals, Apple’s scheme was unprecedented in its use of multiple affiliates that had no semblance of a physical presence, Senate staffers said." Cecilia Kang in The Washington Post.

How to make $30B and pay no corporate tax, the Apple way. "It is a rare and detailed window into how multinationals juggle their international operations to avoid having to pay the taxman. This report may be about Apple, but the information it contains will sound familiar to anyone who has talked to tax lawyers or studied the 10-Ks of other major companies that do business around the world." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

...And Apple is preparing for the D.C. treatment. "To deal with the nasty optics, Apple has turned to a top Washington law firm for help, O’Melveny & Myers – veterans at trying to keep big companies out of trouble, like Enron, Ford and Goldman Sachs. Firms like O’Melveny & Myers work closely with committee investigators to track down what CEOs can expect to face. And they try to limit the scope of the investigation before the hearing even takes place. Apple has also sent its own hired guns to Capitol Hill for recon duty. Their mission: find out the planned line of questioning and expose any surprises senators plan to air." Anna Palmer in Politico.

In other economic news, we have a new acting trade rep. "Miriam Sapiro is expected to be named this week as acting United States Trade Representative, taking over for acting trade rep Demetrios Marantis when he leaves on Wednesday to take a top job at Square, the mobile payments company." Al Kamen in The Washington Post.

...And lawmakers are invited to discuss economic issues with Obama team. "The Obama administration is inviting members of Congress to the White House Tuesday to “discuss economic issues” with the president’s chief of staff and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan Krueger “will lead the discussion,” according to the invitation." Jake Sherman in Politico.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

How net neutrality regulations could undermine the open InternetTimothy B. Lee.

Senior poverty is worse than you thinkDylan Matthews.

Yahoo can't decide if it's a media company or a tech companyTimothy B. Lee.

...And the question for Yahoo: Will Tumblr be more like Google, or more like CraiglistNeil Irwin.

Only 27 percent of college grads have a job related to their majorBrad Plumer.

How to make $30 billion and pay no corporate income tax, the Apple wayNeil Irwin.

No, the federal government does not profit from student loansDylan Matthews.

Is the future of American health care in OregonEzra Klein.

What’s the best way to pass a climate bill? Fix the economy firstBrad Plumer.

Oregon may be the White House’s favorite health exchangeSarah Kliff.

Here’s why the ‘scandals’ aren’t affecting Obama’s poll numbersEzra Klein.

Et Cetera

A tech long read for your Tuesday morning: "Welcome to the Real Space Age," by Dan P. Lee, New York magazine.

Obama schedules week-long June trip to Sub-Saharan AfricaPeter Baker in The New York Times.

Senate debates farm bill with substantial changesDavid Rogers in Politico.

Senate votes to confirm two judicial nomineesRamsey Cox in The Hill.

Duke professor considered for FCC postTony Romm in Politico.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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