The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How immigration reform is scrambling American politics

The overriding fact driving almost everything that happens in American politics right now is that both elections and governance are zero-sum games between the two parties: For one side to win, the other side has to lose.

The sole major exception is immigration reform. On this one issue, both parties -- and, importantly, their allied interest groups -- see the game as positive sum. They believe they can both win.

Today, the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce came to an agreement, at least behind closed doors, on the key sticking point in the immigration debate: How to handle guest workers.

According to the AFL-CIO, the general outline of the deal is that the number of guest worker visas will begin at 20,000 and rise, within five years, to 75,000. After that, the number can vary between 20,000 and 200,000, and will be set based on a formula that takes the unemployment rate, sectoral labor shortages, job openings, and other economic data into account. Workers can petition for permanent status, they won't be tied to one employer, and their wages will have to meet the prevailing wage for that position in either the company or the sector, whichever is higher. More specifics in this AFL-CIO summary.

The deal is a classic political compromise: It splits the difference between the Chamber's interest in more guest workers and Labor's interest in keeping wages high. But deals like that have been rare in Washington lately. While split-the-difference compromises are almost always available, they're rarely taken, as the two sides don't actually want a compromise. Consider the budget, wherein Democrats would love a deal that includes some taxes and some spending cuts, but where Republicans don't want a compromise that includes any tax increases at all.

In this case, however, both sides wanted a compromise. The business community needs a better immigration system. Organized labor needs to unionize immigrant workers, and it needs to remove the downward pressure illegal immigration puts on wages. And so, lo and behold, there's a compromise.

But the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce have agreed before. They were united on an infrastructure bill. They were united on the stimulus. That unity didn't mean much for Republican votes.

Since the beginning of the Obama era, Republicans have seen big, bipartisan legislative victories for the Obama administration as defeats for the Republican Party. “We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Atlantic in January 2011, “because we thought — correctly, I think — that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan.”

This is a shrewd insight from McConnell. Bipartisanship is popular, and it typically redounds to the particular benefit of the president. But bipartisanship is, unusually, a precious political resource that the minority party has exclusive control over. It is entirely in their power to make even an accommodating president look like a polarizing figure who's unable to work constructively with the minority party. And more to the point, it's entirely in their interest.

Elections really are zero-sum affairs. For one party to win, the other has to lose. The incentives this creates are stunningly dysfunctional. Imagine a workplace where the only way to win a promotion was for the boss to fire your colleague. Even worse, if he likes your colleague's work, you get a pay cut. Now imagine that your colleague needs your help to finish a big, difficult project. Think you're going to help him?

This is why Washington is bitterly polarized place. The rules of politics are designed such that it's not in the interest of the minority party to work with the majority party. There are moments when countervailing forces -- be they public opinion or policy desires -- can overcome the basic zero-sum nature of politics. But they're increasingly rare.

Immigration reform, however, sits at the center of an unusual convergence of forces that have made it positive-sum politics. Democrats believe in the policy, but they also believe that it's good -- even essential -- politics to deliver on the number-one priority of the growing Hispanic electorate. Many Republicans also believe in the policy, and almost all Republicans believe that if their party is to prosper, they need to agree to immigration reform to show Hispanic voters that the GOP isn't hostile to their interests.

Moreover, the policy process is centered in the Senate and led, in part, by Sen. Marco Rubio, who is likely running for president in 2016. That means that the effect on the next election is scrambled: Much of the credit, unusually, will accrue to a Republican. As for the credit Obama will get, well, Obama's a lame duck, so it's less politically salient than it might otherwise be.

The AFL-CIO/Chamber of Commerce deal is hardly the end of this process. It clears the way for the Gang of Eight to release a bill. It's anyone's guess whether that bill will clear the Senate, much less the House. But if it does, the reason will be simple: because both parties, for once, think they can win. Republicans and Democrats actually want a compromise, and so we might actually get one.