Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Budgets "stick a fork in it"

Numbers can also be used as political tactics. Just take a look at the new report from the Congressional Budget Office. The report claims that if the Senate immigration bill were enacted, it would cost a whopping $126 billion over the next ten years.

The ever colorful quote source, the anti-immigrant firebrand Representative Tom Tancredo told the Washington Post: "The cost aspect of the Senate plan has never been taken into consideration. When combined with the policy implementations, this should certainly stick a fork in it."

The Washington Post goes on to report that the CBO's five-year cost estimates include $800 million to hire 1,000 additional Border Patrol agents; $2.6 billion to build detention facilities for 20,000; $3.3 billion to build and maintain 370 miles of border fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico frontier; and $1.6 billion to establish a computerized system to verify the eligibility of applicants for lawful employment.

But these numbers are misleading as some Senate bill supporters claim. For instance, the Post points out, most of the $78 billion in discretionary spending that the Senate bill authorizes through 2016 would fund law enforcement measures that conservatives are pushing for anyway. The budget does not consider the increased tax base resulting from legalizing millions of tax-payers.

No comparable information is listed on the CBO immigration webpage for the House version, HR 4437. A letter that was circulated at the end of 2005 from the former head of the CBO to James Sensenbrenner estimated the cost for HR 4437 to be $1.9 billion in the first four years. This number does not include the cost that would be transferred to employers which could be more than $123 billion. These numbers do not take into account the costs related to the increased criminal prosecutions resulting from HR 4437 such as judges, jails, government-appointed attorneys, etc. Add also to this the cost of deporting 12 million people.

But the Congressional Budget Office has not been outside the reach of partisan politics in Washington. The former CBO director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, resigned at the end of 2005 just after HR 4437 was passed. Mr. Holtz-Eakin was an appointee who turned out to be "too critical" of the budget policies of the Bush Administration and he left under a cloud. His deputy, Donald Marron, has only been at the CBO for a few months after moving from the White House's budget office.

With this in mind, it makes it even more difficult to trust the numbers provided by the CBO report (i.e. With Mr. Holtz-Eakin out of the way, how did the CBO arrive at these figures?). If anything, the CBO's next step should be a side by side comparison of the two bills (the Senate and House versions) that includes costs for local and state governments as well as members of the public such as employers. But that would not fit into the overall political strategy that is portraying the Senate bill as a Democratic bill and the House version as the Republican proposal, even when the facts show that both were bi-partisan endeavors. It's just easier to say the Senate bill costs too much even if the data might not prove this to be accurate.

Regardless of this quick-pick method of budgeting, Americans need to be aware that any immigration reform will cost money. But they also should be aware that legalization will also mean even more economic opportunity (and tax-payers) for the nation.