One could teach an entire civics course on the immigration debate still winding its way through Congress, but no exchange is more symptomatic of our federal government's current dysfunction than the following discussion between conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., about the immigration bill's provisions concerning the border fence.
Hewitt: "I've been through the law very carefully. ... They actually don't have to do anything. In fact, I was going to ask you, what if they don't turn in a strategy in 180 days? What's the law's penalty?"
Hoeven: "They'd be breaking the law."
Hewitt: "But what's the penalty?"
Hoeven: "Well, you'd obviously have to enforce the law ... I mean, that would be saying any law we passed, what if they don't bother to enforce it."
What if Congress passed a law and a president signed it, but then a future president chose to completely ignore that perfectly valid law? This is a question our legislators fail to ask far too often.
This is not an issue confined to the immigration debate. It is an issue that has existed since the founding of the Republic and has been growing in importance as the size and scope of our federal government also grows. And it has reached a crisis point during Obama's presidency.
Obama is far from the first president to stretch the law to meet his own political ends. In fact, just weeks before Obama was sworn into office, the outgoing President George W. Bush used the Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out General Motors and Chrysler.
Never mind that TARP was passed by Congress for the express purpose of buying specific types of "troubled assets" from near-insolvent banks to prevent a financial panic. Bush's auto bailout took that authority and used it to turn TARP into a general slush fund for politically favored businesses.
And there was nothing anyone in Congress, or the rest of America, could do about it.
The Executive Branch's casual disregard for the rule of law has only skyrocketed since Obama took office.
Congress can't come to an agreement on how to renew the No Child Left Behind federal education law? No problem, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will just unilaterally rewrite it.
Obama doesn't like the Defense of Marriage Act? No problem. He just won't enforce it or defend it in court.
Obama wants to bomb Libya but doesn't want to bother finding the votes in Congress? No problem. He'll just completely ignore the War Powers Act.
And then, of course, there is immigration.
After Congress failed to pass the Dream Act, which would have granted amnesty to any illegal immigrant who could produce evidence they had entered the country before they turned 16, Obama simply bypassed Congress and implemented the failed legislation through executive fiat.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have since sued Obama to force him to let them enforce the law as written. But it took months of litigation to establish that these officers even had the standing to challenge Obama in court, a feat that an average citizen could never hope to accomplish on their own.
The lesson from all of this is that no American, especially no United States Senator, should ever trust the executive branch to enforce any law, ever.
Hewitt's question is the first question any legislator, or citizen, should ask when considering a new regulatory scheme: But what's the penalty if the Executive Branch fails to enforce it?
The best solution, especially as our country becomes more polarized, is to devolve as many governmental powers and responsibilities to the states as possible.
But that isn't possible for a truly national issue like immigration. In those cases, legislators should look to include strong citizen suit provisions, like the one in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), that is currently holding up the Keystone XL pipeline.
If trust in the federal government was higher than it is today, immigration reform would have already sailed through Congress. But the American people do not trust the federal government right now, nor should they.
That trust can only be rebuilt piece by piece, and ensuring that Americans have more tools to hold the executive branch accountable, is an essential first step.