Why Congress Won't Pass Popular, Bipartisan Bills

Matt Yglesias remarks today that increasing the number of visas for high-skill workers is a popular, bipartisan idea. And yet, it hasn't happened. Matt says this is because legislators don't really want to pass a bill, they simply want to score partisan points:

So Texas Republican Lamar Smith's challenge was to write a bill that did what the tech companies wanted (more visas for skilled foreigners) but that wouldn't actually pass the House of Representatives. He took a two-step approach to this. One was to ensure that each new visa for a skilled foreigner would be offset by one fewer visa allocated under the current system. That helped gin up Democratic opposition. Then the House leadership ensured the bill would be introduced under rules that required a two-thirds vote for passage. The combination of the ruleset and the poison pill was sufficient to achieve Rep Smith's objective—overwhelming GOP support for a bill tech companies love and that failed in the House.

Conversely, the way Democrats like to play this issue when they have the majority is by linking increased immigration of high-skill foreigners to a broader comprehensive immigration reform package that creates a path to citizenship for current undocumented residents. That way it's Republicans who block what the tech companies want.

It's true that in-caucus scheming plays a role here, but overall I have a more transactional take on this. Whenever there's a contentious bill on the table, at least a few pundits will start to suggest that instead of something big, Congress should "go small." Why not just pass the two or three things that everyone agrees on and leave the hard stuff for later?

But the reason is obvious, and it's not wholly down to partisan cynicism: it's those easy parts that help grease the skids for the bigger, harder-to-pass bill. If you pass all the popular stuff on its own, you're left solely with a bunch of controversial and/or unpopular bits, and what chance does that have to pass? About zero. Passing the small, popular bits on their own basically dooms your chances of ever sweetening up a comprehensive bill enough to get a majority of Congress to swallow it in the face of all the sour bits they're going to have to swallow alongside it. So you save those bits for later. That's politics.