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June 21, 2013 10:15 AM Freakout Friday

By Ed Kilgore

Fridays (or at least those when monthly Jobs Reports do not come out) are usually quiet political news days. Congress is typically in recess. News producers and consumers alike are gearing down for the weekend or the next week.

But today two freakouts are influencing the political world. The first is external: the startling reaction of global financial markets to mild comments made at the end of a status quo policy meeting by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on Wednesday. But the second is internal: the possible implications for the immigration reform bill of yesterday’s defeat of the Farm Bill on the House floor.

The consensus view on the market reaction (or over-reaction) to Bernanke’s winks and hints about “tapering” the Fed’s aggressive monetary stimulus is that investors don’t think the ongoing economic recovery is strong enough to sustain itself without continued central bank intervention. The fears, of course, tend to become self-perpetuating very quickly: a sell-off in bonds generated by these “jitters” could very quickly produce a significant rise in home mortgage rates, which in turn could kill off the housing sales recovery, which in turn is a big part of the overall U.S. recovery.

More generally, one might hope the Fed would realize its role in a very fragile recovery and keep its foot on the petal, certainly until such time as perpetual inflation fears actually become justified. In an ideal world, the events of this week might even convince Congress some more fiscal stimulus is appropriate. This is not an ideal world.

The freakout over the Farm Bill is best explained by someone trying to calm people down, Ezra Klein:

Will immigration go the same way? Perhaps. But it’s not a sure thing, either. There’s not going to be an immigration bill that all House Republicans are happy with. And they’re not going to pass an immigration bill because Boehner begs and pleads. But they might, in the end, pass an immigration bill — or allow one to be passed — because they trust the basic strategy.
That’s not just the difference between immigration and the farm bill. It’s the difference between immigration and everything. Washington is acting surprised that Boehner can’t control his members. But we knew that already — remember Plan B? If you’re surprised that the House is a mess, you simply haven’t been paying attention.
The prospects of immigration have always relied on the theory that it’s a unicorn — that Republicans see a strategic need to pass it, or let it pass, that they don’t see for virtually anything else in government. Or, to put it differently, the idea is that immigration reform is an exception to the precise rules that doomed the farm bill. Whether that’s true remains to be seen. But the farm bill’s failure doesn’t prove it false.

It’s a unicorn. That nicely sums up the difference between optimists and pessimists—particular among liberals—on immigration reform. Optimists tend to reject all the ever-growing evidence that the House won’t be able to pass a bill acceptable to the immigration reform coalition that has formed in the Senate, or to the White House, by perpetually telling us the forces of obstruction gaining strength in the House, and the shrieking hordes of grass-roots conservative activists supporting them, are all just a mirage. Enactment of comprehensive immigration reform is, we are told, such an imperative for everyone who actually matters in Washington—the business lobby, the Republican political “pros” who advise the Members behind the scenes, the GOP leadership in both chambers, and indeed, in their heart of hearts, the shrieking, gesticulating conservatives themselves, who privately want the bill to pass—that it will somehow happen by magic.

Asserting the magical properties of the immigration bill has become even more urgent as John Boehner’s position of weakness was exposed by the implosion of the Farm Bill. The timing was particularly unfortunate for immigration bill magicians, since it had been shaping up to be a Maximum Optimism day thanks to the emergence of the Corker/Hoeven “border control surge” amendment (which as of this writing, has yet to be formally unveiled), reviving hopes of the kind of Great Big Supermajority in the Senate that would magically convince House conservatives to abandon much of what they have been saying about “hard triggers” and “no prior legalization” and go along with the zeitgeist.

If Corker-Hoeven unravels, or if conservative resistance to comprehensive immigration reform actually intensifies, then you’ll see a freakout in Washington for real. To a lot of folks, this bill has become a symbol of what they perceive or hope to be the underlying rationality of Washington during crazy times. If it all falls apart, it’ll be time to bust open the meds.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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