House Republicans once again find themselves choosing whether to govern or to make a point. Last year they embarked on a destined-to-fail effort to "defund Obamacare," leading to a 16-day government shutdown. Now, some Republicans want to "defund amnesty," a reference to President Obama's move to rule out deportation for more than 4 million people who are in the country illegally. Rather than make empty threats with appropriations bills, Republicans should take up Obama's challenge to develop a coherent, comprehensive overhaul of the country's badly flawed immigration laws.
You might think that one trip around the hamster wheel would be enough. Yet here we are again, with the government's current funding measure expiring Dec. 11 and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) rallying like-minded House members to threaten another shutdown. To fend them off, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who was no fan of the "defund Obamacare" gambit, had the House vote Thursday on a bill barring the president from deferring deportation of any category of immigrant in the country illegally. That bill passed on a near-party-line vote, but won't even come to a vote in the Senate, let alone survive a veto.
Boehner also wants his chamber to pass bills providing full-year funding for every federal agency except the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, disaster assistance, airport and border security, and a variety of domestic anti-terrorism efforts. That department would be funded only until early next year, allowing the new, Republican-controlled Congress to put its own stamp on the measure. But the threat to "defund amnesty" by cutting off money for the department is a purely symbolic gesture too. The agency that will carry out Obama's executive action on immigration is funded by fees that can be spent until lawmakers explicitly revoke them — which Republicans won't have the votes to do even in the new Congress.
This situation should feel distressingly familiar to Republicans. The public isn't likely to respond well to shutting down the Department of Homeland Security any more than it did to the idea of shutting down the rest of the federal government. Besides, for all of the rhetoric inside the Beltway about Obama overstepping his authority, this dispute really boils down to whether the president can tell some of the millions of people the government doesn't have the resources to deport that they can, temporarily, hold a job legally in the United States. Considering the internal politics of the House, Boehner's approach may be the best way to protect the country from another federal shutdown. Ultimately, though, Republicans can't fix immigration policy by taking agencies hostage. They have to legislate.