By RICHARD TRUMKA
(June 30, 2014) — America’s greatest moments have come when we summon our better angels, when our messy democracy produces a shared vision for the next chapter in the American story.
Immigration reform presents such a moment. Fixing our broken system and creating a road map to citizenship for 11 million people is more than the right legislative reform; it would be a historic achievement, the kind that defines nations and propels them toward their promise. With one more step, we could fulfill our responsibilities, chart our future and set a stronger moral and economic path for our nation.
But Republican leadership won’t let this happen. Make no mistake: The likely failure of comprehensive immigration reform lies squarely, completely and embarrassingly at the feet of the Republican leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives.
One year ago last Friday, the U.S. Senate did its part in a decisive 68–30 vote. Its comprehensive, bipartisan bill created a clear and achievable path to citizenship, ensuring that our economy and social fabric would not be undermined by a permanent underclass of non-citizens without full rights. The bill strengthened protections for all workers and devised a new type of employment-based visa system tied to real labor market need, not the whims of manipulative employers. In addition to its moral power, these reforms would bring economic benefit, generating billions in new revenue and cutting the budget deficit.
No wonder this legislation was supported by nearly three-quarters of the American electorate. No wonder this legislation was endorsed by virtually every reputable component of civil society. No wonder justice, long pursued, seemed well in our grasp.
But over the past year, the House Republican leadership has embarrassed itself before history, cheapened its constitutional responsibilities and diminished millions of lives. Especially as 2013 rolled into 2014, Republican pretensions to action grew more and more transparent. While the country waited for leadership, it got game-playing. Our messy democracy was on the verge of meaningful accomplishment, Republican leaders chose the mess instead.
It was not always such in Congress. Both parties have long histories of compromise and cooperation as hard-fought, dignified battles near their end. In my lifetime alone, principled Republican leadership was the key difference in historic debates over civil rights and Social Security.
In 1964, Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen worked tirelessly with Democrats and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to pass the Civil Rights Act. After the filibuster from Senate Democrats began, Dirksen convened a working group to come up with a Senate bill to achieve enough bipartisan support to break the Southern filibuster. Even when a conservative bloc of senators revolted, he didn’t back down, and eventually the filibuster was defeated by a bipartisan group of 73 senators, paving the way for passage of the landmark legislation.
In 1983, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Dole (R) was determined to find a solution that protected Social Security benefits for future generations. When a logjam developed, Dole, also a member of the National Commission on Social Security Reform, broke it by writing an op-ed that suggested tax increases could play a role in shoring up the trust fund. This was a major concession from a leading Republican. This prompted fellow commission member Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) to initiate negotiations for a compromise that led to Senate passage of a comprehensive reform bill by an overwhelming vote of 88–9.
These were moments that continue to define our nation today. Such moments are rare; our pluralistic democracy compels that they be rare. But when they present themselves, true leaders of both political parties have seized them, aware that the better angels of a democracy can be fleeting indeed. As chances for immigration reform dwindle, House Republican leaders would do well to grasp their historic responsibility.
If Republicans fail to act, they will cede the stage solely to the president. The Obama administration will have the opportunity to receive all of history’s honors by acting swiftly and decisively to end the deportation crisis spawned by the House’s failure to act on comprehensive immigration reform.
Richard Trumka is President of the AFL-CIO. Learn more at aflcio.org.