Published Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:56 pm
Margaret Carlson: Washington misses opportunities to learn from Boston

Ordinary people, elected and unelected, have behaved heroically in recent weeks. Unfortunately, it all happened hundreds of miles from Washington.

In Boston, strangers gave clothes and shelter to shivering runners. They comforted injured spectators. They saved lives and limbs. In New York, there wasn’t as much to do, so they sang “Sweet Caroline” at Yankee Stadium. Meanwhile, the people we love to hate — elected officials and government bureaucrats — performed admirably and collaboratively, sharing power and camera time.

For a glimpse of how ordinary civil servants do their jobs without fanfare or riches, watch this interview with Edward Deveau, the police chief of Watertown, Mass. Watch it alone so no one will see you crying. He’s just a small-town cop. He never thought he would find himself and six of his officers called upon to stop two bomb-throwing terrorists.

But they were, and they did. Deveau didn’t come close to spiking the ball. “Watertown’s men,” he said quietly. “They saved a lot of lives.”

Now come to the nation’s capital, so broken and filled with the wrong people that it can’t rise to the occasion even when the occasion is relatively low and brings no hail of gunfire, no life-or-death decisions. There was no need to capture any terrorists on the run. Instead they ran their mouths.

Called upon this past week to resume Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on immigration reform, they melted down. They’d gotten to a surprisingly good place thanks to a rare confluence of bipartisan interests: Republicans want to have a prayer of getting some of the Latino vote and to provide cheap labor to their business constituents. Democrats would like to keep the Latino vote.

Passing an immigration bill is the Senate’s only chance to do something important this session, now that it has missed the chance to do something not very important about gun control.

But the Senate is like a game of kiddie soccer: Everyone just wants to go where the ball is. So the senators wanted to spout off about what happened last week in Boston and use it to justify whatever they wanted to do. The result was an unusual public outburst of childish bickering.

Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat, said it would be cruel to use Boston to delay immigration reform. His Democratic colleague, Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Gang of Eight that negotiated the immigration compromise, said his colleagues shouldn’t use Boston as an excuse to slow down the carefully crafted bill.

“I never said that!” shouted the usually amiable Charles Grassley of Iowa, turning to face Schumer. He yelled it again in case Schumer was secretly listening to his iPod.

“I don’t mean you, Mr. Grassley,” Schumer said. He quickly blamed the misunderstanding on “lots of calls” he’d gotten from the unwashed masses dialing the switchboard. In fact, Grassley had said, “While we don’t yet know the immigration status of the people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out, it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system.” And his Republican colleague, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, chimed in as backup.

Grassley isn’t the only Republican senator citing the events in Boston as an excuse to delay reform. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was for reform before he was against it, might be for it again if the bill would have kept the Chechens out (it wouldn’t have, although all the rules requiring immigrants to register would help the government keep track of them).

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, whose presidential hopes are riding on threading the immigration needle, wants to use the Boston investigation to address any shortcomings in the current bill. Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana called for Congress to “just push it back a month or two.”

Two months should just about do it, by which I mean kill immigration reform. Vice President Joe Biden, God love him, was asked to study gun control, and that study is now being blamed for sapping some of the momentum. (Although what really killed gun control was the National Rifle Association’s time-tested strategy of bullying cowardly members of Congress.)

The hearing and the bombings brought home two truths. The first is that Washington doesn’t cope with tragedy so much as look for partisan advantage in it. Although Grassley never admitted using Boston to delay immigration reform, he did say that if he were to do so, he would be justified, given how Democrats had used Newtown to push for greater gun control.

The second is related to the first: In a crisis, we should be grateful that Congress, or at least the Senate, isn’t in charge. For civility, competence and common sense, we’re better off looking hundreds of miles away.

Contact the writer: mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

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