How can the Senate vote on a bill which has not yet been written?
Early last week, conservative weblog RedState.com broke the news that key members of the Senate -- from both parties -- were cloistered in a dark back room, conspiring with the White House to draw up a hastily-agreed-to "comprehensive immigration reform" bill which would be sprung both on the Senate as a whole, and on the American populace, with little or no warning or time for debate before cloture was sought early this week.
Less than 24 hours later, key provisions of the forthcoming Senate bill leaked to the public, including the so-called "Amnesty" provisions, which, through the issuance of "'Z' visas," would allow "aliens, along with their dependents...to legally remain in the United States under certain conditions for an indefinite period of time, even if they chose not to pursue the so \-called 'pathway to citizenship.'"
Last Thursday afternoon, the bill was reportedly released to the Senate, and politicians, pundits, and candidates came out of the woodwork to issue statements about its contents. President Bush lauded the proposal, which he said "will help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, ...will treat people with respect," and the White House communications office sent out a fact sheet touting this successful "bipartisan agreement on comprehensive immigration reform." South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint disagreed, saying "the little we do know about the bill is troubling."
"This rewards people who broke the law with permanent legal status, and puts them ahead of millions of law-abiding immigrants waiting to come to America," DeMint continued. "I don't care how you try to spin it, this is amnesty." Despite this, though, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), appearing at a news conference with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and others, expressed concern over "undue limitations on family immigration" included in the bill, as well as other provisions.
"I strongly oppose today's bill going through the Senate," said GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who called it "the wrong approach." Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy boasted that "the agreement" was "the best possible chance we will have in years to secure our borders, bring millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America."
Others took a more measured approach. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) called the agreement "far stronger than the bill the Senate produced last year," but stipulated that border security and "a real security infrastructure" were "requirements for [his] support of any legislation." Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson released a statement in which he said that he would "reserve judgment on supporting the final bill until the debate is complete," but that "at a minimum the bill must include [a] border security "trigger" prohibiting implementation of a temporary, probationary work permit program until the Department of Homeland Security certifies to the President and to the Congress that the border security provisions in the immigration legislation are fully funded and operational."
Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, posting on RedState.com, called on Washington to "scrap...the whole debate until we can convince the American people that we have secured the borders or at least have made great headway."
The media -- print, online, and television -- were swarming Thursday afternoon with this and other commentary on the sudden immigration legislation. However, amidst the debate and the rush to support or condemn specific provisions of the bill (or the bill as a whole), one aspect of this issue was entirely overlooked:
At the time, there was still no actual immigration bill.
Multiple Senate sources confirmed that, despite Senator Kennedy and others' original statements, as of 10:00 PM eastern daylight time Thursday evening, "no bill presently [existed] and probably won't until tomorrow at the earliest" because "the lawyers are still behind closed doors putting it together." Senate sources also confirmed that "the bill probably will not be online [and available to the public] in its final form until after the Senate has voted on it." Furthermore, even Senators involved in the process itself offered contradictory reports on its contents. For example, at the same time that John Kyl (R-AZ) was on one news channel praising the bill's elimination of chain migration -- a key provision he himself had championed -- Reid was telling another network that that provision would not be in the bill's final draft.
Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), speaking Saturday morning at his home state's Republican Party Convention, confirmed that as of that time he still had not received a completed immigration bill. This fact, though, did not keep him from praising the forthcoming legislation -- an act which attracted a chorus of boos from representatives of his own party.
The proposed legislation was finally completed Saturday night, giving legislators one day to read and analyze the 326-page proposal before it comes to the floor today. Though the Senate apparently had no plans to make the bill public before cloture was reached, the conservative Heritage Foundation did the public a great service by acquiring a copy of the proposed legislation and immediately posting a draft of it online. Causing further disquiet is the fact that the Senate Judiciary Committee has been completely bypassed in this process, with the bill set to come to a final vote before the end of the week without ever having gone through the process of committee review, hearings, testimony, or fiscal analysis.
Proceeding in such a hasty, guarded fashion reflects poorly on the intentions of those crafting it in such secrecy at the very least, as well as on the legislation itself, and such backroom dealings speak volumes about the ethical nature of this Congress. Unfortunately, prominent members of both parties have gone along with this process willingly -- as has the administration itself, which has long sought such "comprehensive" reform, as opposed to the border security- and- enforcement-first approach many concerned members of Congress and of the citizenry have favored.
Beyond these parliamentary concerns, though, is one issue of supreme importance: that of the war supplemental. Over 100 days have now gone by with no supplemental funding for America's troops who are currently in harm's way and in growing need of supplies. Approving the funding which would provide much-needed materiel to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who are putting their lives on the line 24 hours a day, on orders from their government, is a far more important and more immediate issue than "comprehensive immigration reform," and as such it should take priority. The fact that it does not speaks volumes about how seriously the key members of the "World's Greatest Deliberative Body" actually take the war in which our military is currently engaged.
The provisions of the immigration agreement aside, the fact that so many statements were made when such an important piece of legislation had not even been written yet -- as well as the fact that, even when completed, the bill was poised to be rushed through the Senate and made available to the public only after its passage -- should sound alarm bells in the head of every citizen and lawmaker who prefers honest, open government to backroom dealings and votes on bills that have not even been read before they hit the floor for debate. The state of affairs it represents is, unfortunately, becoming a hallmark of the 110th Congress. The fact that the administration, along with a number of Senate Republicans, is so deeply complicit in this affair paints a very distressing picture of where some key individuals' priorities really lie. Apparently, these priorities do not include supplying the young men and women who are risking their lives day in and day out in the War on Terror. Likewise, these priorities are neither in tune with the American populace, nor with the spirit of our Republic, which demands open, honest, and accountable government -- regardless of the subject of the legislation in question -- in order to function as it should.
Jeff Emanuel is a director of RedState.com, a special operations Iraq veteran, and a fellow at the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security.