Week In Politics: Napolitano Resignation, Immigration Reform

Audie Cornish talks to political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's resignation, immigration reform and the farm bill.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And for more of the week's politics, our regular Friday commentators are here: columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you guys.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be here.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

CORNISH: So obviously a huge part of Secretary Napolitano's legacy will be border security. It's a major sticking point in the ongoing debate over overhauling the nation's immigration laws. And this week, House Republican leaders had their meeting to come up with an alternate strategy, right, to the Senate bill. What of the news that came out of that meeting impressed you? What's the strategy here that you see? I'll let you go first, David.

BROOKS: Well, it's always interesting to watch a major political party commit suicide. So I think that's sort of what we saw. What the Republicans are doing, they're going to break it into a bunch of pieces. They're going in a different direction than the Senate, different than anything the White House will be acceptable to.

They're going to try to have - beef up the things they like, like border security, and probably ignore the things they don't like, like path to citizenship. But without the comprehensive bill, there's no chance of getting anything. So we're pretty much likely to get nothing.

CORNISH: All right. Political suicide. E.J., what does that leave you to say on this?

(LAUGHTER)

DIONNE: I agree with David. I think that when you look at what the House Republicans are saying, they're not making arguments for voting no; they're making excuses for obstruction. And I think it was one of the most impressive things this week was to see Chuck Schumer and John McCain stand together and say, come on, Republicans in the House, you can't stay here.

I still think there's going to be pressure on them to act but I think this was a two-part obstruction play this week. The other remarkable thing that happened was the passing of a farm bill without food stamps in it, without any of the nutrition programs. That's never happened since 1973. This is not only inconsistent on principle; it's not small government. They voted $195 billion over 10 years for agribusiness and farmers and zero for working families on food stamps.

So they're not being true to fiscal - sort of fiscal care. And they are really throwing over a lot of working people.

CORNISH: Now, I was going to ask you about this separately. I mean, the thing is the food stamp program doesn't need this particular piece of legislation to continue, right? I mean, it's just the idea that these two things were married together for a very long time. David, what do you see in that, in them being split apart?

BROOKS: Yeah. Well, I'm hoping to defend the House Republicans but you guys got to give me something to work with here.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: So they're really not helping. It started with a good impulse. The impulse is, as you said, there was this unholy marriage between the SNAP, the food stamp program, and the ag subsidies.

CORNISH: With the idea being you could draw bipartisan support.

BROOKS: Exactly. And get it passed year after year. And that's pretty much what happened. And the House Republicans, a huge percentage of which are freshmen and sophomores, come in and they want to really change Washington. And so that's a good impulse. Here's an unholy alliance; let's look at this. Let's look at all these ag subsidies that are bloated and in many ways wasteful.

Let's look at the incredible ramp-up in the food stamp program. Let's look at it. And so there was a good impulse there to break it apart. The problem was instead of actually doing something populist and breaking it apart and reducing the ag subsidies, they caved in to their interests and kept the ag subsidies while not even funding, so far, the food stamp program. So they look like they're helping their interests - rich corporate farmers - while ignoring poor people who do rely on food stamps.

So it's the worst marriage of bad instinct, bad institutional respect, bad politics.

CORNISH: All right. Time to bash the other house. Let's go to the Senate side.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: There's a vote set for next Tuesday to end Republican filibusters on several of President Obama's more controversial nominees. Now, if Democrats don't get the 60 votes that they need on each of these nominees, they say they're ready to change the rules of the Senate to make it impossible to filibuster a nomination. This is the so-called nuclear option, which I feel like I hear about every three to four months. Why should we be concerned or pay attention this time?

DIONNE: Because something has happened over the years, and particularly during the Obama administration, where, to begin with, the filibuster used to be used sparingly. Now it's used on everything, which is not in the Constitution. The Constitution doesn't require supermajorities for routine stuff. But on appointments it's particularly scandalous. I was reading the Lincoln book earlier this year and it really struck me that Lincoln would set up a nomination in the morning and the Senate would often confirm it on the same day.

Obama has been blocked over and over again. More than one-fourth the cabinet department positions that require Senate confirmation remain vacant. Now, let's assume that Obama's been a little slower in making appointments. There has clearly been abuse of this process and I think it's past time to just say enough of this and to have a majority vote on confirmations.

CORNISH: But the argument has always been if you change the rules now, you know, it's going to look different to you when you're in the minority. David?

BROOKS: This is an example of pure opportunism. Like all process issues, nobody actually has substantive beliefs. They just do what's right for them at that moment. And so whatever party's in the majority, they always want to do the nuclear option. Republicans did it. The Democrats were furiously opposed. Now the Democrats are furiously in favor, Republicans furiously opposed.

The principled position is the Senate is different than the House. We have a republic, not a democracy. We're not a majoritarian institution. We need to protect minority rights and the filibuster is a precious institution that protects minorities so majorities can't run roughshod over them.

If we get rid of the filibuster, if we exercise the nuclear option, the Senate will be just another version of the House. The minority will have no power and we'll be more polarized.

DIONNE: Maybe the filibuster was...

CORNISH: Do either of you get the sense, though, it is more likely this time around, that this threat to change the rules is real?

DIONNE: Yes, I think it is real, and I disagree with David on principle. I think the Senate should operate, as it always has in our history most of the time, as a majority institution. And I'm willing to live with the consequences of that.

CORNISH: What happened to the teacup and the cooling and the taking of the time? That's not...

DIONNE: Well, Congress has more cooling and taking time than we can count. So I'm not worried about that. I am worried about routinizing something that was never supposed to be routinized. It's not precious anymore, David.

BROOKS: I'm for cooling.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: We have got a lot of stupid ideas running around in this country. We need some cooling.

CORNISH: All right, we'll have to leave it there. David Brooks of the New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thank you guys so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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