I love that story about the fellow who visits a major metropolis and is brought to the city’s great cultural pride, the LaSalle Museum. He asks the curator if the place was named after Andre LaSalle, the great impressionist painter. “No,” he is told. “It was named after Claude LaSalle, the writer.”
“Really? What did he write?”
The great immigration bill of 2007 is being given the grand treatment, with a full dose of presidential support, and a hefty measure of ire landing on its detractors. President Bush lashed out at critics of his immigration reform package the other day, and one would imagine, hearing such conviction, that he is the author of the legislation. Indeed he specifically aspersed conservative gripers for not having “read the bill,” implying by the slur that he was ready to be quizzed on its minutest codicils. Sadly, the truth is he probably does not know a fraction of what it contains and the further sadder truth is that to a large extent it is unknowable.
Forty-nine percent of Americans, when prodded by pollsters, aver that the immigration system should be subjected to thoroughgoing reform…of one sort or another. Besides for the stupidity of that poll question — allowing those who believe anyone should enter the country at will to vote “Yes” alongside those who believe no one should ever come in — it casually relies upon a general ignorance of the price of reform. Any reform.
Respondents to that poll question should first read this handy primer: The Hard-Boiled Guide to “How a Bill Becomes a Law.” Let’s skip over all the nasty contentious partisan internecine infighting preliminary to, and in conjunction with, committeeing and voting and conferencing and signing. Now we have a thoroughly Rose-Gardened photo-opped Truman’s-penned Spanish-blurbed vellum-covered crisp-leafed volume, or set of volumes, containing 7,000 pages of freshly minted law-of-the-land. Enter the wheelbarrow stage left, cart away the colossus, and let the celebration begin.
Then comes the pleasant task of implementing our modern-day gem of legislative genius. First, millions of taxpayer dollars are spent by the INS to pay lawyers to “read the bill” and deliver opinions of what the darned thing means. Not surprisingly, some of these assessments will contradict each other. More committees, more management teams, more oversight, more oversights, more layers of bureaucracy, more millions. Finally, they arrive at a tentative conclusion, a working document, a coherent policy memo; well, more than one, actually, as different regional offices flex their muscles. But something more or less livable anyway. Until the lawsuits.
Here is a projected scene that is very realistic if not inevitable. Cases are moving up through the Federal court system. The INS is being sued by taxpayer-funded immigrant advocacy groups over this or that issue of interpretation. A group of highly skilled and highly paid lawyers are duking it out in the highest courts in the land. Then someone gets the bright idea of tracking the amount of government money involved. Suddenly you realize: you, the taxpayer, are footing every line item on this invoice. You are paying for the La Raza lawyers, for the INS lawyers, for the judges, the clerks, the bailiffs, the whole kit and caboodle. It will cost you billions just for the executive and judicial branches of government to “read the bill” the legislative branch — you paid for that, too — wrote… you know, the one you had the nerve to criticize because you were too lazy to read.
In reality, the dumbest and least cost-effective way in the world to remedy systemic flaws is to rashly rewrite the entire system. It is like holding a Constitutional convention just to revisit a single problem. Like rewriting the rules of baseball from top to bottom because not enough fans are coming to games. Like replacing the entire Procter & Gamble product line because sales of Pringles are down. Like rebuilding your house from the foundation up because of a leaky roof.
There are problems in immigration, sure. Some are enforcement-related, like our inadequate policing of borders and workplaces. Solution: do it right. Some are policy-related, like our treating Haitians worse than Cubans just because their government is broken through corruption rather than Communism. Solution: fix the policy, no new law needed. Some are administrative, like the backlogs in old applications and a poor system of identifying applications with mutual impact. Solution: bring in efficiency experts. But for goodness’ sake, let us not make the gargantuan error of replacing one bloated unwieldy devil-we-know with another bloated unwieldy devil-we-don’t.
Which brings us to the other old joke about the supplier who sends the merchant a memo: “Due to poor payment history, your order cannot be filled until remuneration is received.” The merchant fires back angrily: “Please cancel my order. I cannot wait that long for delivery.” We’re still trying to pay for the last botched bill.