Definitions of Success Matter in Policy Debates

Thoughts on the immigration debate.

Doug Mataconis’ post on the immigration debate reminded me of the following from Scott Lemieux of LGM:

Chait and Yglesias note something interesting about the conservative opposition that is almost certain to kill immigration reform. Almost none of the arguments focusing on border security compare the bill to the status quo; instead, the comparison is to some implausible baseline in which the border is entirely “secure.”

I have mentally noted this problem throughout the debate, but have not yet written about it.  For example, Senator Cornyn attempted to amend the Senate bill to require include the following:

1.  100% Situational Awareness – monitoring capability at every segment of Southern border
2.  Full Operational Control – defined as at least 90% apprehension rate along Southern border

There were a number of other strictures (see the link) in the proposal and they all summed to being a) fantasies based on a total misunderstanding of how the world works, b) ridiculously high thresholds designed to kill the legislation, or c) all of the above.

Making perfection, or near-perfection, as a condition for moving forward to implement new policies is a sign of not wanting the new policies to ever come about.

Policy making is about incremental change, especially in a democratic setting.  The comparison is not between the status quo and some imagined reality one wishes to live in, but between the status quo and achievable improvements.  The debate should then be about a) agreement over what achievable improvements to pursue, and, b) whether the cost of moving towards those improvement is worth paying (in time, effort, and treasure).

One of the telling aspects of this debate is that Republican Party does not appear to actually want to improve the status quo, despite how awful that appear to think that it is.  If every proposal is designed to stop policy change, then it is reasonable to conclude that they do not want policy change.  The behaviors also lend credence to the notion that GOP behaviors are driven far more by identity politics than about policy concerns.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, US Politics, , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think you’re being a bit hard on the Republicans (not a lot—just a bit). The present Senate bill appears only to offer a level of expenditure on border security rather than any level of performance as the “trigger” metric.. If the objective of Sen. Cornyn’s amendments is to turn the discussion to some level of performance as the trigger and assuming that the present bill has no performance (just expenditure) as the trigger, it’s just the time-hallowed ploy of offering extreme alternatives to compromise somewhere in the middle.

    I’ve criticized that approach in several contexts as just plain poor bargaining technique. Better would be to search for common ground and use that as a basis for an agreement rather than mutually unsatisfying compromises. But that does appear to be the norm for Washington negotiation and so the proposal is at least comprehensible from that standpoint.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    1. 100% Situational Awareness – monitoring capability at every segment of Southern border
    2. Full Operational Control – defined as at least 90% apprehension rate along Southern border

    In the late 60s and early 70s I worked for the DIA in Europe interviewing people who escaped from East Block. They had double fences with land mines in between and many guard towers. Enough people still got through to keep me very busy and we had to screen people to find out who might actually have useful information. Cornyn’s requirements are impossible and he knows it.

  3. Barry says:

    Stephen, any analysis which assumes honest and goodwill from the GOP is flawed from the start.