Tea party, redistricting doom immigration change

Tea party, redistricting doom immigration change

By Jim Nowlan

The immigration bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate is receiving a hostile reception in the House from tea party-oriented GOP members who dominate that party's caucus. The result is likely to be little or no action on the issue this year.

The tea party offers a fascinating case study of how a plurality of the GOP House members can obstruct high-profile legislation they don't like.

For much of the 20th century, Republicans operated as a minority in the U.S. House and Senate. The party's leaders took the approach that, instead of trying to obstruct the majority, the party would try to water down, cut back or reshape the Democrats' proposals into less obnoxious or more favorable bills.

The most colorful illustration of this approach was Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, the U.S. Senate minority leader in the 1960s.

I gave a talk recently on Dirksen, so he is fresh in my mind. Ev had a mellifluous baritone and a penchant for big words and flowery phrases. Visitors to D.C. would fill the Senate galleries just to hear him speak.

Detractors called him the "Wizard of Ooze" and "Oleaginous Ev." But presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson knew they had to have Ev in their camp to pass the civil rights legislation of that era and to support Johnson's expansion of the war in Vietnam, among other major initiatives.

On public accommodations and voting rights (the latter act recently declared no longer necessary by the U.S. Supreme Court), Dirksen pulled together reluctant GOP senators to vote to end a filibuster by senators from the Deep South.

It is probably hard for young people to imagine that in the 1960s blacks were often barred from restaurants and hotels, even in Illinois. My seatmate in the Illinois House, a distinguished black attorney, said black lawmakers could not stay in hotels or eat in restaurants in downtown Springfield, Lincoln's hometown. Instead, they stayed with black families on the east side of the city.

Today, obstruction rather than compromise is more likely the order of the day in Congress. No change is generally better for tea party backers than another law, which might expand government somehow, as Obamacare has done.

The tea party is aided in its tactics by partisan redistricting of congressional districts, which is how it is done in most states, including Illinois.

To maximize party numbers and protect incumbents in a legislative body like the U.S. House, like-minded voters are packed into safe districts.

So for Republicans that means predominantly white, conservative voters. These voters tend to be less supportive of immigration reform than do the voters of U.S. senators, who represent whole states, which are more diverse.

Tea party activists are extremely effective at cowing more moderate Republican House members into finding a way to vote the tea party line on big issues.

If not, the representative will find himself opposed by a tea party-backed candidate in the next primary election, where the tea party may have a majority of the small primary voter turnout. This is the nightmare GOP House members live with as they cast their votes.

I am a moderate Republican who believes that some immigration reform is needed, so I would be called a RINO (Republican in Name Only) by the true believing tea party activists.

And even though a majority of the U.S. House probably agrees with me, the majority will just as probably be defeated by a minority this time around. GOP Speaker John Boehner has promised not to bring up for a vote a bill opposed by a majority of his own members.

The only way I see that immigration reform of some sort can pass would be for Boehner to call up an immigration bill and seek Democratic votes, which would cost him his job.

I like the Dirksen style of operating better, but then I'm a RINO.

Jim Nowlan is a member of the Executive Ethics Commission in Illinois. He is a retired senior fellow with the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a former president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois. A former Illinois legislator and aide to three unindicted governors, he is the lead author of "Illinois Politics: A Citizen's Guide" (University of Illinois Press, 2010). He can be contacted at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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bluegrass wrote on July 30, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I wonder why people who dare to consider that in many cases a problem can be solved by more freedom, or less government intervention, or by having more faith in an individual rather than a government entity, are referred to as "activists."  

The left, and many on the right have succeeded in turning a "Tea Party Activist" into some kind of pariah.  Mr. Nowlin provides the latest, shining example above. 

It is right to obstruct when the end result that you're working against is bad for the country.  The Tea Party was born when George Bush III began a relentless spending campaign, and grew stronger when Obama shifted into 5th and floored it.  The current Republican leadership in the House and Senate are unprepared and incapable of stopping the train.  Despite all Jeb Bush's rhetoric about immigrants being fertile, and Jay Carney's talk about how adding millions of low skilled workers to the job force will actually result it an increase in wages, I believe reasonable, thinking people can see through the fog.  The reality is that we don't have a problem with immigration in this country, we have a problem with dealing with the people we allow to enter and live here illegally.  Instead of solving the "illegal" part, we call those who would address that problem a racist Tea Party Activist.  It's the exact same formula used with out of control spending.  Governments spend and promise trillions of dollars more than they collect, and when that money is gone everyone blames the people who are yelling "stop spending!"  If working to somehow put a stop to any of it makes me an activist, or a Tea Party Activist, or a libertarian, or extremist, or whatever name people would like to call me, then I suppose that's just the way it is.