Boehner's immigration failure: A weak speaker tries to look tough

John Boehner said "we will do our job" on immigration reform. He didn't, and now he's blaming Obama

Published July 1, 2014 2:00PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                          (Reuters/Jim Bourg)
John Boehner (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

Yesterday saw the culmination of a process a long time in the making. President Obama, faced with inaction in the House of Representatives on immigration reform, announced that his administration will commit additional resources to border enforcement and work within his existing legal authority to make changes to the immigration system. Obama had been threatening to do this for months, and it was really the only plausible outcome of the seemingly interminable immigration fight. The deportation crisis and the flood of refugees from Central America coming over the Mexican border demand that some action be taken, and politically the president needed to shore up his standing with pro-reform allies and put pressure back on the GOP.

But let's forget about partisanship for a moment. Let's put aside all the tea leaves and divining rods and approach this as straightforwardly as possible. With yesterday’s announcement, we can make an unqualified and objectively true observation: on immigration reform, Speaker John Boehner failed.

I’m not talking about the House’s refusal to take up the Senate’s comprehensive reform bill, which died its final death yesterday afternoon. The House Republican leadership were always fairly up front about their opposition to the Senate legislation. I’m talking about Boehner’s own description of his own job when it came to immigration reform, and how he failed to live up to it.

Last July, not long after the Senate passed its bill, Boehner held a press conference in which he sketched out the path forward for immigration reform:

House Speaker John Boehner is sticking to his position: The House will not vote on the Senate-passed immigration bill.

“I’ve made it clear and I’ll make it clear again, the House does not intend to take up the Senate bill,” Boehner said Monday. “The House is going to do its own job in developing an immigration bill.”

He added, “It is time for Congress to act. But I believe the House has its job to do, and we will do our job.”

“I believe the House has its job to do, and we will do our job,” he said, that job being the crafting of an immigration reform bill. Here we are nearly a year later, and Boehner has informed Barack Obama that there will be no immigration votes in the House – not on the Senate bill, not on any bill. The leadership did manage to float a series of immigration reform “principles” earlier this year, but those were never hammered into a piece of actual legislation. No partial credit awarded, no gold star for effort.

You can’t get around Boehner’s failure, and you can’t extract that failure from the overall explanation for why we’re now still talking about “our broken immigration system.” It highlights the fact that on just about every question, Boehner is operating from a position of extreme weakness. And now he’s trying to disguise that weakness with a phony demonstration of strength.

Last week’s news that Boehner intends to initiate a lawsuit against the Obama administration for its “aggressive unilateralism” in applying executive orders just happened to coincide with Boehner telling Obama in private that there would be no immigration vote. It was a canny move: provoke Obama into taking executive action on immigration; get out in front of the president by announcing a lawsuit over executive orders; stand back and say “look, he’s doing it again!” when Obama takes the executive action he goaded him into. That appears to be precisely what Boehner is doing. Responding to Obama’s remarks yesterday, Boehner denied-without-denying having told Obama that there would be no vote, and expressed regret that the situation had come to this:

In our conversation last week, I told the president what I have been telling him for months: the American people and their elected officials don't trust him to enforce the law as written.  Until that changes, it is going to be difficult to make progress on this issue.  The crisis at our southern border reminds us all of the critical importance of fixing our broken immigration system. It is sad and disappointing that – faced with this challenge – President Obama won't work with us, but is instead intent on going it alone with executive orders that can't and won't fix these problems.

You should read the whole statement to get a sense of how much Boehner’s position relies on desperate untruths. “The president’s own executive orders have led directly to the humanitarian crisis along the Southern border,” Boehner said, blaming a crisis that began in 2011 on an executive action issued in 2012. But even if it weren’t full of lies, Boehner’s position suffers from the irreconcilable tension between his claim that Obama “won’t work with” the House and the fact that the House has provided nothing to work with, despite Boehner’s promise that it would.

All the other nonsense about the Republican lack of trust in Obama is just hollow excuse-making. Boehner’s lawsuit is legally shaky and a fairly obvious attempt to keep conservative anger focused on the president. This is what the Boehner speakership has been reduced to – efforts to make the man nominally in charge of half the legislature look less weak than he really is.

But the failure at the center of the immigration reform debacle belongs to him. Boehner gave himself a job to do and said he’d get the job done, and he didn’t.

By Simon Maloy

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