Talking Border Fence With House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, Or, How Everyone Can Lose The Immigration Debate
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Politico reports that John McCain and Chuck Schumer are afraid they are losing the immigration debate. What a surprise. They didn’t do a serious job on border security and so the bill is dying. All they had to do was build a fence, but they wouldn’t do it and instead threw billions at other stuff people didn’t ask for while ignoring that which had been promised in the past. The fence –a long, strong, double-layered fence with access roads– remains a meaningful symbol of Congressional seriousness on the subject as well as a real, genuine deterrent. The symbol is of broken promises, and the deterrent isn’t there.
So, the problem of the missing fence remains, and the immigration debate turns to the House. Will the House do the obvious thing and pass a law mandating a border fence –a law with design specifics and the necessary appropriations and authorities (“notwithstanding any other law” language etc)– thus making regularization of most of the 11 million, plus other key issues such as E-Verify and visa reform, possible? That necessary step –the minimum assurance of a real fence– what I discussed today with House Homeland Security Committee Chair Mike McCaul, and the answer I came away with is “No. Not going to happen.”
Congressman McCaul is a good conservative with a solid voting record, but our conversation was deeply discouraging, and the audience was outraged at the end of it. Again and again, GOP members of both bodies seem mystified to learn that the general population is very forgiving of the 11 million who are here but not forgiving at all of Republicans who aren’t doing the obvious thing on the border concerning the fence. They also seem oblivious to the fact that any bill without fence specifics is instantly and unavoidably understood as a dodge, a trick, another breach of faith with the base.
I remain mystified by the Beltway’s indifference to the one consistently and loudly-made demand from voters, which has been a border fence, a demand made for more than a decade. It is incredible that the House GOP doesn’t get this basic political reality, even after the Gang of 8 bill got ripped for not having a real fence in it. Yes, E-Verify and visa reform are also necessary parts of a GOP alternative to the diaster that is the Senate bill, but “no fence, no deal” is the one constant refrain from most conservatives for the past six years, and the Beltway GOP insists on ignoring it –except when they are campaiging. (John McCain campaigned on “Finish the dang fence” in 2010…but that was then…) When folks like Congressman Lou Barletta attempt to argue their way out of double-talk on the fence, they violate the first rule of holes, and end up even deeper in the ditch they dug while not building the fence. “Straw man” arguments like those marched into battle by Congressman Barletta are particularly outrageous to conservative activists who are so used to hearing them from the president.
My long interview yesterday with The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich about his best-seller This Town (transcript here) confirmed the existence of the deep contempt that Manhattan-Beltway elites have for ordinary voters. Nowhere is that contempt more obvious, and more bipartisan, than on the issue of the fence. Here’s the transcript of my interview from Thursday’s show with Chairman McCaul:
HH: Good afternoon America. It’s Hugh Hewitt. I am so pleased to welcome onto the Hugh Hewitt Show Chairman Mike McCaul. He’s the Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. He represents Texas’ fine Tenth Congressional District and a lot of my listeners down there on KNTH 1070 land know him well. Congressman, welcome. It’s good to have you with us about HR 1417 because my audience is concerned a lot with the fence and the bill is either going to get it built or not built. Tell us about it.
MM: Well what the bill does first and foremost unlike the Senate version is it mandates a strategy and a plan to be presented to the Congress before we spend anymore money. The past 20 years, Hugh, we’ve thrown billions of dollars down there with no results. I voted for the Secure Fence Act. I’m a big fence guy. That’s been the only thing that we’ve really done in the last decade that’s worked. So what this plan calls for unlike the Senate where it gets amazing how, you know, Shumer from New York is dictating how to secure the border and knows nothing about it, and then throws $46 billion dollars without any rhyme or reason to it, doubles the number of border patrol agents arbitrarily. What we do is mandate a strategy and a plan before we spend anymore money, and the conservative groups like this because it’s fiscally responsible because we haven’t blown billions down there in the past. Once they present the plan then we look at capability gaps, we look at assets, we look at fencing, which I very likely we’re going to authorize or appropriate additional fencing and make-up what Pelosi waived in terms of the 700 miles. In addition to that aviation assets to see what’s on the ground, sensor surveillance technology—all this stuff needs to be a part of the whole package so that we can finally get control of this war. I’ve been dealing with this as you know Hugh, even before Congress as a Federal prosecutor. This is one of my highest priorities coming in as the new Chairman and I just want to get it done.
HH: Well, amen to that. I keep telling folks that there is a very lot of complicated measures in this. E-verify matters a lot and the visa over stays matters a lot but the physical fence, double layered with an access road is the visible expression of an invisible result to control our sovereign border and I’m actually from—I’m not a big deport anybody, regularize them all. I’m not a hard liner on this but I really do think that that 700 miles is the minimum. So, will you guys agree to anything unless and until a border fence is built?
MM: Look in my view I’m not going to repeat 1986 all over again where we grant amnesty and don’t do the security provisions. That precisely what the Senate bill does and that’s why I’m strongly opposed to it. We’re going regular order which means goes through our committees and in my judgment is when the plan comes forward we look at that its, government accountability office verifies we have it. We have metrics design by the National Lab that measures its success which we don’t have today, and then we determine where do need to put all these resources and assets. I’ll tell you this, I’m taking a delegation to San Diego to look specifically at the fence because a lot of these members up here from other states, not border states, have no idea or clue about how the border operates and you have to see it to understand it. So I want them to see the double layer of fence in San Diego. I’m going to take them to Tucson to see from the technology and then I’m going to take them to the Rio Grand Valley my state where it’s absolutely wide open because all we do is plug holes up and then the holes open up somewhere else which is why we need a strategy and a plan.
HH: I’d love to come down and see when you and your team are down at the border. Here’s my problem with 1417 and tell me why it can’t be fixed before or when it goes to the floor, is that we all know that there could be at least a minimum floor built in there. Sure so get a plan but say and don’t bring a plan unless it has at least 700 miles of double layered fencing with an access road. I think it should be at least half the border or you might mandate the whole border and then tell them to tell you where it’s not necessary because we know there are mountains in the Rio Grand and all that kind of stuff. Why not put a floor in there that says loud and clear that no matter what happens, America, we’re going to get at least 700 miles of double layered fencing—you know 14 feet—and why not do construction specs? Why not get it in black and white?
MM: Again, if I do that then I have to put in aviation assets, sensor surveillance—all these things that are part of getting security down on the border so that comes up when the plan is presented to Congress and I guarantee that the members on this committee are going to want to see at least what was authorized under the Secure Fence Act finally completed. I bet that’s going to be—and frankly our conference that’s what they are going to want. I think that’s pretty well assured that that’s going to happen.
HH: Yeah but this is the problem. I trust you. I do not trust the President and I don’t trust the conferees and I assume that you might be one of the conferees, and I don’t want you to get rolled. I asked Trey Gowdy about this and I’ll ask everyone who goes in there. You guys might get rolled at some point. I don’t know if the Hastert Rule is going to be there but if you take in a bill that has specifics in it the Senate knows that that’s the floor. Why not even if you have to put in aviation assets and even if you have to put in all the gunk why not at least spell out that the bare minimum from the perspective of the conservative border conscious caucus has got to be 700, 800, 1,000 miles of double layered fencing with an access road?
MM: And I understand your argument and see how that would be very appealing to do. Again, we don’t want to throw money down there until we get a strategy and a plan and we don’t have that right now. When we get that fencing will very likely be a part of that plan in addition to all the other technology we need to get down there. I agree with you on the conference thing. I think my bill can actually pass and wouldn’t even put us in a conference position.
HH: Well I’m not sure I’d like that. I honestly just don’t believe anything that doesn’t have in it minimums. I think that’s where—this is a national show obviously and you know your district better than anybody and you know Texas’ border better than anybody but this is a national show and people call in from all over and most Republicans want to put this behind us but they don’t trust just anybody about anything including our own caucus. If a bill comes out of the House and it isn’t specific I think the party will split and lots of primaries will happen and all that has to happen is for blunt specifics—for example, the Senate bill exempts all tribal land. That’s the kind of thing that you look at and you say oh my gosh… it doesn’t have “notwithstanding any other law authority” so the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Water Act can’t screw up fence construction. If we want to win people especially in the middle to a position of support for border security don’t they deserve to know what the minimums are Congressman? I mean you’re the Chairman you can make this happen.
MM: This is a circuitous argument.
HH: Yeah, it is.
MM: It goes back to we make those decisions when we actually have—and let me tell who’s developing the strategy and the plan because that is very important. It’s Coast Guard, it’s CBP but it’s also the Board of Governors, it’s the border sheriffs who, by the way, have endorsed this bill and nobody knows this border better than the border sheriffs, and they have opposed the Senate plan and have endorsed my bill and they are tired of seeing dollars wasted down there without a strategy or a plan. Those, those calculations we made when the plan is presented. If I hit one area then I have to hit it all. The thing is, I want to the stakeholders to make the decisions not members of Congress. You know, What you are doing is going back to what the Senate did or Chuck Shumer decides how much fencing needs to go down there when he doesn’t know a darn thing about the border.
HH: No, I do know…
MM: That’s what you are doing.
HH: I am…
MM: You’re empowering members of Congress over the stakeholders who know that border better than we do, and that’s the border sheriffs, that’s the governors down on the border including my governor and they’re a part of this plan. They are going to be a part of this strategy. I want to see what that is before I start wasting tax dollars and throwing stuff down there arbitrarily without any rhyme or reason to it. That’s clearly irresponsible.
HH: I do not believe that anyone listening thinks that at least 700 miles of double layered fencing is fiscally irresponsible.
MM: I personally think you know that we ought to finish what we authorize.
HH: That’s what I mean. That’s why if it passed once, that’s why I’m saying, that is a minimum which is why 1417 to me has a glaring deficiency in that it does not resurrect, fund, authorized cause to be constructed that which was promised before.
MM: Let me tell yoou Hugh, we’ll probably make some technical corrections to this down the road and this will be an evolving process but you know but I don’t think it’s good for me to decide that I know exactly what needs to be down there before I hear from the border sheriffs, governors, CDP and Coast Guard.
HH: Well, here’s my different perspective and I think I speak for the audience here. When you say “stakeholder” I think I’m a stakeholder. I think I’m an American citizen. I think I helped elect the Republican majority. I think I raise a lot money for a lot of you guys and I put you on the air all the time and support you. I think I’m a stakeholder. And I think that in 2006 the country got a promise. It got an IOU from the Congress of the United States for 700 miles and we all understood that to be like the San Diego fence, and there’s at least 700 miles of fencing that needs to be built, so when that IOU isn’t honored and the first Republican bill that comes out the stakeholders in the party look at it . . .
MM: It’s going to be honored. When the plan is presented it most likely will and you know what? You are a stakeholder and we will listen to you. We’ll put in the plan what we’re hearing from the American people.
HH: We are circuitous. I will let the audience talk to you Congressman. I hope this succeeds but I’m afraid of the political fiasco that awaits.
MM: This is not part of the immigration reform. This is a security piece that has to be done. Now is the time to do it and this reform debate is giving us the vehicle to get it done. I don’t know what’s going to happen with reform but I’ll guarantee you this: I’m going to fight hard to make sure that we finally get control of the border.
HH: When does 1417 come to the floor?
MM: Probably in September.
HH: And so if people talk to you, and I hope they do so respectfully but sincerely between now and then. and they say Congressman, “I’m with Hewitt. We need specifics in 1417 the minimum.” Are you open to that amendment?
MM: Well, we would have to have specifics with aviation, specifics with surveillance –
MM: I don’t want to have that discussion until I know what the metrics in the plan is by the stakeholders who know the border than the members of Congress.
HH: All those things weren’t in the 2006 law. The 2006 law said 700 miles of fencing. That’s the IOU, so why would anyone ever believe Congress’ next set of IOUs no matter what the plan is.
MM: Well it’s 650 built, so it’s 50 more miles.
HH: What’s that?
MM: We’ve built 650 so you’re talking 50 more.
HH: Actually, nobody believes that. That 650 includes traffic barriers and pedestrian fences. It’s not double layered fencing like San Diego and I think that’s like a suicide note to tell people that it’s been built when the traffic barriers…—so if you really believe that we’re really going to have an argument. Seven hundred miles was supposed to be the real deal and that sounded to me just now like that IOU is going—it’s going to bounce. It’s going to be another hot check.
MM: Look half of the majority of our conference is supporting that idea that we’re going to have to see tough security measures done first, before anything else. That’s just a bottom line.
HH: Well I appreciate—I hope you come back on when the floor debate is. I think you are going to hear from a bunch of people that that is not even close to good enough from their perspective and that we are stakeholders. That 650—
MM: There’s no question you are, and that’s why I’m on your show.
HH: I know but that 650 that will make people go crazy in their cars. Nobody believes that that is the real fence and that that was what was promised.
MM: We’re going to go down there and show a bunch of members.
HH: Mr. Chairman, thank you and we look forward to the next visit.