Week In Politics: Immigration And The Economy

Robert Siegel talks to political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss immigration and the economy.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Time now for our politics talk with Friday regulars David Brooks of the New York Times and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Good to see you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And since we've talked a lot about NSA surveillance over the past couple of weeks, here's a change of pace. First, to President Obama on Charlie Rose speaking about Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think Ben Bernanke's done an outstanding job. Ben Bernanke is a little bit like Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI, where he's already stayed a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to.

SIEGEL: Did the president essentially fire the Fed chairman on television? And what do make of Bernanke a few days later getting specific enough about ending the Fed's stimulus program that the stock market plummeted? First, E.J., is a new chapter in economic policy about to begin?

DIONNE: Well, I think so and I hope not. I think there's a chance that the person President Obama appoints to replace Bernanke - and by the way, I don't think he fired him on the air, I think that this has been known. I have a feeling they may have talked about this in advance. But Bernanke has been incredibly important. He's been Horatio at the bridge. After making some mistakes, I think, before the crash where Congress checked out after the initial stimulus in trying to get the economy moving, Bernanke has been there pushing and pushing and pushing.

And I think that one of the reasons his comments this week made the markets so nervous is they suggested there may come a point when he stops pushing. He said if the jobless rate goes down to 7 percent by mid-2014, the Fed would stop its stimulative bond-buying programs. The markets think the economy is in very good shape. But then now, since, there have been a lot of signals that Bernanke was actually trying to reassure markets saying, I know I have to keep going.

And some of those signals may have gotten through to the market today.

SIEGEL: David, put this in the context of a Washington in which the administration and the Congress aren't going to make any economic policy from what we can see. If the Fed isn't doing something, who is?

BROOKS: Well, the question is whether it needs to be done anymore. I mean, a lot of economic firms are raising their estimates. A lot of people think the economy is finally beginning to build up steam. The housing market seems to be in recovery mode. And so it's the job of the Fed to, you know, famously to take the punch bowl out of the party.

And as somebody who specializes in ruining parties, I tend to support him when he does that. You know, that's his job. When you have super loose policy, which certainly has been needed for a long, long time - but when you have super loose policy, you get people borrowing money at really no cost. You get bad signals. You get bubbles. You get inflation.

And so his job is to sometimes be the bad guy. And, of course, the markets aren't going to like, but I think he's done a remarkably good job over the (unintelligible).

SIEGEL: I'm trying to visualize taking away the punch bowl while, as he would say, removing his foot from the accelerator at the same time.

DIONNE: See, and I think it's not punch bowls, but life support. And I think the New York Times editorial page had it right when they said the Fed is in a spot. If it continues its bond-buying programs, bubbles could form, but worse, if it ends the program prematurely, the Times wrote, the economic weakness could persist and deepen. And that's the problem Bernanke's in.

I'm not sure he said what he was said to say. The Economist's Justin Wolfers had a lovely tweet that said, what Bernanke said blah, blah, blah. What the markets heard, sell everything.

SIEGEL: Okay. On another topic, Senate Republicans have come up with a border security plan that will presumably sweeten the pill of a path to citizenship, which they're wary of. David, can you imagine a bill with 60 or 70 Senate votes that's this attractive to Republicans passing the House and becoming law?

BROOKS: Yeah. I can imagine it, but I have a really good imagination, you know. Fifty/fifty, I think, in the House. I think we're overselling the extent to which the Senate actually really has an effect on the House. The two sides are sort of aloof from one another, especially some of the more conservative House members. What this does, I think it takes the security fence off the table as an issue and gets us to the core issue, which is right now, under current law, we're going to have 20 million new immigrants coming in over the next two decades.

According to the CBO, if this law passes...

SIEGEL: The Congressional Budget Office.

BROOKS: Right. We will have 36 billion new immigrants, 16 - I'm sorry - million additional people. And so the real question is, is this changing our country sociologically and culturally. To me, this has always been the core concern of a lot of opponents and all the other stuff has been window dressing. So now we're getting down to the core issue.

SIEGEL: But E.J., if a new immigration law has a path to citizenship that takes 12 years, assumes you're okay with the IRS, you pay fines, you don't go home. You take advantage of no federal benefits. Would it be a success if only 5 of the 11 million people who are here illegally decide to take advantage of such a program?

DIONNE: Well, we don't have any idea how many would take advantage of it, but it would be a success if we could legalize a very large share of the people who are here illegally. And this amendment that Senator Corker and Senator Hovind put forward to try to make sure it passed the Senate by a big margin - which would put something like $30 billion in more forces at the border, as well as finishing that fence - I find myself in the opposition of thinking it's a ridiculous idea and I'm all for it.

It's a ridiculous idea because I don't think we need to spend this money at a time of virtually zero immigration. On the other hand, this was the way to get a bill to pass with a path to citizenship, a reasonable path to citizenship. And so I think it's worth paying the price. And I think there will be pressure on the House from 70 votes, if it does get that many.

SIEGEL: A House that just passed a bill making it a crime to be here illegally.

BROOKS: Right, and, you know, I think what you're going to - the crucial test will be you've got a lot of House members who are going to oppose it, but they know it's ultimately good for the party, so they won't oppose it fiercely, and somehow they'll allow it to slip through. But it will not be with a lot of enthusiasm.

DIONNE: That's the key, allowing Boehner to bring it to the floor even if they vote against it.

BROOKS: Right.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, thanks very much once again.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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