Amnesty Looms Large in the Reconciliation Bill

By Jason Richwine on September 14, 2021

National Review, September 14, 2021

Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee held a markup on the immigration provisions of the Democrats’ reconciliation bill. One of those provisions is an amnesty estimated to cover eight million out of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. Although touted as a benefit for so-called “Dreamers” who arrived at the age of 18 or younger, there are only about two million of them in the country. The bill’s larger qualifying category for amnesty will probably be “essential” workers — with “essential” defined very broadly, of course. (The bill also contains an expansion of legal immigration.)

As most readers know, Senate bills normally require 60 votes to break a filibuster, but a special process called budget reconciliation allows some legislation to pass with a bare majority. In order to be included in the reconciliation bill, the amnesty faces at least two procedural hurdles. First, reconciliation is supposed to be reserved for budgetary matters — that is, taxing and spending. To prevent senators from smuggling in any imaginable policy change under the guise of the budget, Senate rules require more than a “merely incidental” budgetary impact to qualify for reconciliation.

It is frankly ridiculous to assert that amnesty passes this test. In fact, amnesty is exactly the kind of major policy change that the budgetary rule is designed to exclude. Giving green cards to eight million people has legal, social, and economic effects that go far beyond the increased spending required to pay recipients government benefits. If the main purpose is really just to make illegal immigrants eligible for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, then presumably the bill should do only that, without granting a path to citizenship. If the Senate parliamentarian allows this amnesty to pass as a budgetary matter, the filibuster will be severely wounded — perhaps fatally.

The second procedural hurdle is the rule that reconciliation bills cannot increase the deficit beyond 10 years. The problem here for the amnesty provision is that so much of its costs are back-loaded into entitlements. As I wrote for NRO back in April, illegal immigrants are actually a fiscal boon to Social Security and Medicare — as long as they remain illegal. The reason is that roughly half pay taxes into those programs, but most cannot collect benefits. Granting eligibility for entitlements via amnesty would cancel this fiscal benefit and impose a steep cost in its place. My best estimate is that legalizing eight million illegal immigrants would cost Social Security and Medicare Part A $1 trillion in net present value.

I confess that at this point my understanding of the reconciliation process becomes fuzzy. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Social Security spending is considered “off-budget” and therefore not part of the calculation that determines whether a reconciliation bill increases the long-term deficit. Nevertheless, even just the Medicare portion of the amnesty’s entitlement costs will be substantial. It is imperative that the Congressional Budget Office publish a cost estimate that incorporates the full effect on entitlements, not just the impact within the next 10 years. Without a long-term score, major costs associated with amnesty could be hidden, and the whole reconciliation process might proceed illegitimately.