April 22, 2006

April 22, 2006 | Commentary on

Immigration Plan Overlooks Budget

"It could be pretty big," fretted Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.), "and one of the problems is nobody knows how big." Moreover, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.) added, "this is something ... that we never discussed at all...as we moved forward with legislation which ultimately cleared committee and came to the floor."

Kyl and Sessions, who both serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, were discussing the latest crosswind to buffet the Senate's immigration reform bill: the legislation's potentially significant fiscal impact, as set forth in a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT).

Remarkably, after three grueling weeks of committee mark-up and two weeks of extensive and acrimonious floor debate, no one had thought to examine the cost of the massive reform plan and whether those costs would fit federal budgetary guidelines. Thankfully, as the Senate considered the last-minute compromise plan fashioned by Senators Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R.-Fla.), Sessions took to the floor to warn those who supported the bill that it's a "budget buster."

How much of a budget buster? Sessions, Kyl and others argue that the demographic profile of the millions of citizens who would acquire legal status under the Hagel-Martinez compromise is consistent with that of citizens already enrolled in federal anti-poverty programs. Because "the average family income for illegal immigrants is just above the 2006 federal poverty line of $20,000," Sessions maintained, "it is not surprising that many of these families will likely rely on social-service programs to meet their basic needs."

The CBO-JCT report supports their contention. It estimates that the Hagel-Martinez bill in its first five years would increase direct spending on programs such as Food Stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit by $8 billion, depress business tax payments by $5 billion, and authorize spending on new programs totaling another $16 billion. With a total price tag of $29 billion over five years, and $59 billion over its first decade, Sessions concluded the Senate's leading reform plan "will be a drain on our programs that are designed to provide health care and assistance to American citizens."

Worse, the report also determined that "the bill would impose mandates on state and local governments with costs that would exceed the threshold established in the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act."

The last thing congressional Republicans need to embrace in the current political environment is yet another bill that would expand the federal government. Sessions, Kyl, and a few of their colleagues, such as John Ensign (R.-Nev.) and Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.), plan to raise these concerns should the immigration bill ever return to the Senate floor.

Survey Says: The extent to which the Republican Party has ceded its pedigree as the party best able to control spending and improve the economy can be glimpsed in a recent Los Angeles Times poll that shows how core registered voters in general, and self-identified conservatives in particular, have grown disillusioned with the GOP's handling of important issues facing Congress.

Registered voters now prefer Democrats over Republicans on such traditional sources of GOP strength as controlling the deficit (by 47% to 20%), taxes (41% to 29%), and keeping America prosperous (40% to 32%). A surprisingly large minority of conservative voters look kindly on the Democratic Party, with 26% saying they want the Democrats to win control of Congress in November and 29% preferring Democrats over Republicans as the party best able to control spending. Most strikingly, more than one in five self-described conservatives say they would select John Kerry over President Bush if the election were held today.

The one bright spot for Republicans, interestingly, is immigration. Despite endless media hand-wringing that this issue so divides Republicans that it threatens the party's very existence, neither party has established a lock on this pivotal issue. The Democrats' slim advantage over Republicans (29% to 26%) pales in comparison to the 40% of registered voters who either have no opinion or say neither party is best equipped to handle immigration. It's an issue ripe for the plucking. National Republicans would be wise to heed the warnings of fiscal conservatives such as Sessions and Kyl on this newest wrinkle in this most passionate of political debates.

Michael Franc who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events