WASHINGTON — One reason Washington makes so much bad history is that so many people here know so little history. This helps explain why “comprehensive” immigration reform is foundering: Too few of today’s legislators know what happened 163 years ago.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell does know. The most important Kentuckian since Henry Clay, McConnell knows how his hero Clay, who was called “the great compromiser,” failed to engineer Senate passage of a comprehensive compromise in 1850. McConnell, who wrote his senior thesis at the University of Louisville on the Compromise of 1850, knows that this was achieved by the canniness of Stephen A. Douglas. His is a name not much mentioned on Capitol Hill since he died in 1861 at age 48.
In 1850, the “Little Giant” — he stood 5 feet 4 — was in his first term as senator from Illinois. He would win his third term in 1859, defeating the tall man who was president when Douglas died. Douglas’ great achievement — the compromises of 1850 — helped save the union by releasing steam from the sectional crisis. This delayed the Civil War — the “irrepressible conflict” — until a decade of immigration and industrialization had made the North more prepared to win it, and until two other Illinois men, Abraham Lincoln and U.S. Grant, emerged.
By 1850, the country’s sectional hostilities, fueled by slavery, had been exacerbated by the war with Mexico. As the North’s population grew and the House of Representatives became increasingly hostile to the expansion of slavery, the South focused on preserving the Senate balance of slave and non-slave states while the nation digested the land acquired in the war.
The tangle of disputes concerned several matters — fugitive slaves, the slave trade in the District of Columbia, statehood for California and creation of territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico. A Texas-New Mexico border dispute and some other matters were added to the witches’ brew.
Clay, depressed and exhausted after failing to assemble a Senate majority for a comprehensive bill that addressed each subject, went to Rhode Island to rest. Douglas, however, proposed breaking the comprehensive bill into separate measures, which passed. He cobbled together several different majority coalitions.
There were 60 senators when the process began but 62 before it ended, after California’s two arrived. For a lucid exposition of all this, read Fergus M. Bordewich’s “America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union.”
Now, consider the “comprehensive” immigration bill passed this year by the Senate, and Sen. Marco Rubio’s judgment that “if we stick to the position of all or nothing, we’re going to end up with nothing.” The bill, in the writing of which Rubio participated, is 1,197 pages long.
It is 1,193 pages longer than the National Archive’s parchment copy of the Homestead Act of 1862, which is one of the most important legislative acts in American history. Passed when there were few national laws regulating immigration, the Homestead Act was designed to attract immigrants to settle the continent’s interior.
Today’s Senate bill is gigantic because it deals with everything. Its size is proportional to Washington’s serene confidence that it knows everything. What should be the hourly wage of an agricultural sorter in 2016? The Senate bill (through an explanation given on page 318) says $9.84. And the hourly wage of a worker in a nursery? Twenty cents less than the agricultural sorter’s wage. Some senators know everything.
The bill also contains a remarkable geographical insight: Nevada is a border state. Your eyes tell you its southern tip is about 200 miles from the Mexican border, but the bill, which includes $46.3 billion in border security spending, decrees that Nevada is eligible for border pork.
Immigration reforms should address three problems — border security (the least important problem; about 40 percent of those here illegally came on visas they overstayed), the needs of America’s workforce, and the status of the 11 million here illegally. If McConnell were majority leader, the bill would be broken into manageable bits, and there might be found a different majority coalition for each.
But the majority leader is a Democrat (Harry Reid from the border state of Nevada) whose party has one overriding interest — turning as many of the 11 million into voters as fast as possible. They are holding all immigration reforms hostage to this objective. Which shall be the case unless and until McConnell is majority leader.
George Will’s syndicated column appears Thursdays and Sundays in the Tribune-Herald. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.