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The Rubio-Heritage Foundation Sideshow

When the Heritage Foundation announced that the pathbreaking D.C. think tank had hired South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint to succeed its influential founder and president Ed Feulner, most of the political world took it as confirmation that Heritage would continue in a direction in which it was already heading. With the establishment of its activist 501(c)4 arm Heritage Action for America, the organization had been taking a much more involved role in fights over congressional legislation, and even began “scoring” legislators on their votes.

They had made it clear, as well, that they would openly challenge members of Congress on legislation they opposed before the voting actually took place. And that is how DeMint, who as a senator was instrumental in bringing Marco Rubio into the Tea Party fold, came to spend the last two days arguing with Rubio through the political press. The tiff began in earnest on Monday when Heritage (not Heritage Action) released a study purporting to show the cost of Rubio’s immigration reform proposal at $6.3 trillion. As Politico reported, conservatives struck back at Heritage. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Paul Ryan, and scholars at the Cato Institute accused Heritage of ignoring the economic benefits of immigration to the country. Yesterday, Rubio responded:

“I have tremendous respect for [conservatives who oppose immigration reform] and for Jim DeMint,” Rubio told POLITICO Tuesday. “I agree with him on literally 96 percent of the issues, that was my score last year with Heritage. I think on this one we just have a different view on the best way to approach it.”

Rubio’s office and Heritage discussed amendments to the bill as recently as Monday, according to the Florida Republican. Rubio believes only a comprehensive approach to immigration will work, unlike conservatives in DeMint’s camp.

This morning, Heritage defended itself:

Heritage has worked with Senator Rubio on numerous issues, and we admire him. He is right: Our study is “an argument for welfare reform and entitlement reform.” He cannot pretend, however, that this already herculean task will be made easier after we have added millions of new people to a failing entitlement system. The time to fix it is now. We are ready to work with him and any man and woman of either party who realizes the urgency of our plight.

There are certainly those defending Heritage, but aside from the numbers there’s another problem with Heritage’s decision to oppose the bill on financial grounds: it almost certainly won’t matter, because the real issue is over border security. This is a point Ben Domenech has been making in the Transom, though an early version of his argument is online here. As Domenech notes, and as Byron York explained yesterday, the public is skeptical of the government’s commitment to secure the border, and that is the objection that can kill the bill:

A new survey by pollster Scott Rasmussen shows a strong public belief that currently illegal immigrants should be granted legal status only after new border security measures are in place.  The poll also shows little public faith that the federal government will actually secure the border, along with a slight decline in support for immigration reform in general.

There is good reason for this. As I’ve written in the past, border security is the “waste, fraud and abuse” of immigration promises. If the federal government wanted to secure the border and knew how to do so, they would have done so. And they certainly wouldn’t need to make it a bargaining chip in reform efforts. The fact of the matter is that the reason the controversial Arizona immigration law came about in the first place was that the federal government wasn’t securing the border, and state politicians grew tired of waiting. An unsecured border, in the age of asymmetric warfare, is an indefensible lapse in governmental responsibility.

But so is our current immigration system, which doesn’t provide the low-skilled immigration the economy needs and which turns laborers into elements of a black market, which is degrading and economically counterproductive. The country’s current immigration system, then, is an obscenely broken bureaucratic mess. But while the need for reform is clear, the skeptics of the current bill are on firm ground with regard to border security and enforcement.

The current “gang of eight” proposal sets a benchmark for border security that must be met–or else a new bureaucracy will be set up to figure out how to meet the benchmark. But the benchmark is based on knowing not only how many people are caught crossing the border but on how many people are trying to cross the border–an obviously fluid, at times subjective, and virtually improvable statistic. And bureaucracies love such statistics, because they can make them say whatever they want them to say. And a major problem with that is that bureaucracies require the perpetuation of a problem in order to continue justifying their existence–and their staffs’ often-inflated federal salaries and benefits.

The Heritage-Rubio spat over entitlement costs is essentially a sideshow, then. If Republicans are satisfied with border security provisions, they’ll support the law (though it remains to be seen if Democrats will). If not, they won’t, and the bill will almost certainly fail in the House, if not in the Senate first.


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