Norquist Goes to Bat for Immigration Reform…Huh?
Business + Economy

Norquist Goes to Bat for Immigration Reform…Huh?

REUTERS/Jeff Topping

Meet Grover Norquist – Washington scold of higher taxes, big government spending and virtually any policy promoted by the Democrats – but who is suddenly an unabashed champion of bold immigration reform legislation promoted by prominent Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats alike were doing double takes on Monday while the bearded Norquist sat in a Senate Judiciary Committee witness chair and offered his unalloyed support for the “Gang of Eight’s” bipartisan immigration reform legislation. That legislation, formally unveiled last week, would beef up security along the borders as a prelude to granting many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants a decade-long path to citizenship after paying fines and back taxes. 

Norquist, the much feared president of Americans for Tax Reform, has managed to intimidate 95 percent of Republican lawmakers into signing a no tax increase pledge, and once quipped that he wanted to shrink government down to the size “where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Yet he has embraced immigration legislation that opponents--including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint-- deride as “amnesty” for scofflaws  and a potential major drain on government resources and entitlement programs.

“You wonder why they keep saying it [amnesty], like a 14-year old with a dirty word; they keep saying it again for shock value,” Norquist said blithely during his afternoon testimony in the Senate Hart Building. “It just isn’t true.  You can’t hit people with fees and fines and all sorts of [penalties] and act like you haven’t done anything.”

RELATED: Costs of Immigration Reform Split Conservatives

Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., an unvarnished liberal Democrat whose politics couldn’t be more different than those of Norquist, treated the powerful conservative Washington lobbyist like a long lost friend, regaling him with stories about his father’s Irish immigrant roots. Meanwhile, a baffled Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee and an avowed critic of the “Gang of Eight” plan, stammered: “Mr. Norquist, you know I agree with you most of the time, but I’m surprised to hear you backing a bill that has emergency spending in it.”

“Well, I’m a Jack Kemp-Ronald Reagan Republican, and I think that this is a bill that will spur economic growth, give people more opportunities, make the economy stronger,” Norquist replied.

He joked, “There’s a down side that all of these people who have been here undocumented will now pay taxes and pay fines and the government will get all this money and do something horrific with it.”  He went on to say that “ the government is going to get a whole bunch of revenue from people who haven’t been paying taxes and will be required to” in order to qualify for a green card or citizenship down the road.  “There are fees involved,” he added. “Not exactly amnesty, as some people like to say.”

Here are the highlights of what Norquist had to say yesterday:

  • On immigrants’ contribution to the U.S.: “People are an asset, not a liability. America is the most immigrant-friendly country in the world, and we are the richest country in the world. This is not a coincidence. Those who would make us less immigrant-friendly would make us less successful, less prosperous, and less American.”
  • On the importance of having  a flexible labor market:  “Allowing undocumented workers to move from job to job, travel easily and safely, search out and interview for different jobs in different sectors and locations would greatly increase their productivity, and they would become greater contributors to their own well-being and the wealth of our nation.”
  • On the importance of dynamic scoring: “The broad issue of dynamic scoring applies specifically to immigration reform because immigrants increase both the supply and demand sides of the economy. On the supply side, immigrants work and thereby increase economic production and the productivity of Americans. Because immigrants have different skills, they are complements rather than competitors to the vast majority of Americans. On the demand side, immigrants purchase and rent goods, services, and real estate produced by other Americans, thus incentivizing production.
  • Dozens of immigration advocates lined up outside the hearing room yesterday morning for the day-long hearing that involved 23 witnesses in four separate panels. An early flare up between Leahy and Grassley over whether opponents were taking advantage of last week’s Boston Marathon bombings to try to slow or derail progress immigration bill gave way to hours of detailed  policy discussions of the potential impact on the economy, the agriculture industry and the federal budget.

The immigration bill features a 13-year path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants currently in the country; increased funding for new border surveillance drones, fencing and customs agents; new visa programs for low- and highly skilled workers; and a reduction in visas for extended family members trying to be reunited with relatives in the United States.

Norquist’s testimony underscored a glaring rift among conservatives. Among lawmakers, the split is best personified by the dueling between Cruz, the Texas freshman and Tea Party favorite who is emerging as the face of the opposition, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another freshman and Tea Party adherent, who is taking a major role in promoting the reform legislation.

The firebrand Cruz warned yesterday that efforts to provide illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship would pull down the reform effort, and that lawmakers should concentrate instead on consensus items such as enhanced border security and helping immigrants more quickly enter the country legally.

RELATED: Immigration Reform Costs: $7 Billion or $2.6 Trillion

Meanwhile, a controversy has been brewing among conservative organizations over the likely economic fallout from immigration reform.  The use of traditional budget and economic estimation tools by the Congressional Budget Office seem to reflect lasting costs associated with immigration reform. By contrast, “dynamic scoring” techniques—which factor in potential growth—suggest meaningful benefits that could reduce future budget deficits.

Since “supply side” economist Arthur Laffer sold President Ronald Reagan on the economic-expanding wonders of tax cuts back in the early 1980s, Republican lawmakers and administrations have pressed the CBO and Joint Tax Committee to use more “dynamic scoring” in estimating the long-term impact of tax cuts or tax reforms. Now the question is whether those same techniques should be applied to gauging the impact of a legalized immigration policy on the workforce, consumer demand and long-term tax revenues.

The Heritage Foundation, a premier conservative think tank and long an opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, uses more traditional scoring methods. Back in 2007, Heritage helped kill a previous Senate reform effort with an analysis concluding it would cost the government $2.6 trillion in the decades to follow, due to increased demand for social services and retirement benefits. The foundation is preparing a new cost analysis of the “Gang of Eight” plan that will peg the long term cost to the government even higher than that, according to DeMint, a former South Carolina Republican Senator.

“Taxpayers are right to be cautious of another large, incomprehensible bill like Obamacare—which created numerous new federal programs while politicians still falsely claimed it would lower the deficit,” DeMint wrote in a blog post yesterday.

“A properly structured lawful immigration system would help our economy,” DeMint added. “This is why Heritage and conservatives have long argued for reforming the legal immigration system to make the process more efficient, more merit-based.

"We need an immigration process that attracts high-skilled workers and encourages patriotic assimilation to unite new immigrants with America’s vibrant civil society. Amnesty for unlawful immigrants is totally different. Amnesty would impose significant tax burdens on Americans that are completely unnecessary to capture the positive economics that would be associated with a properly reformed lawful immigration system.”