One might have gathered from the deluge of news about breakthroughs on comprehensive immigration reform that bipartisanship was so strong on the issue that the negotiators would want to publicly demonstrate their success.  However, the immediate response from Marco Rubio strongly suggested that the Gang of Eight had other ideas about how to proceed with its legislative language.  In his statement on Sunday, Rubio warned that stories of an agreement on a bill were “premature” — and then demanded an open process for debate in Congress:

“We will need a healthy public debate that includes committee hearings and the opportunity for other senators to improve our legislation with their own amendments. Eight senators from seven states have worked on this bill to serve as a starting point for discussion about fixing our broken immigration system. But arriving at a final product will require it to be properly submitted for the American people’s consideration, through the other 92 senators from 43 states that weren’t part of this initial drafting process. In order to succeed, this process cannot be rushed or done in secret.”

In my column today for The Week, I look at the assumptions that went into the supposed necessity of backroom deals to bypass bitter partisanship on Capitol Hill, on budgets, ObamaCare, and practically everything else produced during Barack Obama’s term as President.  Maybe the impulse for secret deals and rushed legislation speaks to something else entirely, if a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive immigration reform can’t be aired publicly through the committee process:

The fact that this needs to be said speaks volumes about the breakdown of public access to congressional action. For the past four years, the debate and production of the most basic of all legislative efforts — the federal budget — has been shielded from public view, thanks to the Senate’s refusal to work within normal order. Instead, the public has had to endure artificial crisis after crisis while a few politicians make all the decisions behind closed doors. Their agreements are then rushed through in temporary measures or continuing resolutions.

Critics claimed that these “fiscal cliffs” and episodes of brinksmanship demonstrate the corrosive nature of partisan bitterness and division, since the two parties could not even conduct the most basic of business together. But now we have what appears to be bipartisan agreement on one of the most contentious issues facing the U.S. over the last decade or more — and Rubio’s statement suggests that the negotiators don’t want any sunlight on cooperation, either. It shows that the problem may not be bitter partisanship after all, but a lack of intestinal fortitude among our governing class.

This lack of transparency and public involvement is much worse for self-government than a lack of resolution on the immigration issue. While it’s easy to understand the political risks of taking public positions on immigration reform, and to appreciate how fragile any eventual agreement would be, the impulse of Congress to hide its work and then rush it through an ill-informed vote is the worst legacy of the Senate’s four-year abdication of its responsibilities. Legislation as far-reaching and important as immigration reform and border security deserves a public hearing and input from elected officials of all 50 states, not just a self-selected clique of elites enabled by public officials anxious to dodge responsibility for the outcome.

David Drucker warned of the same problem at Roll Call last night, and notes that Rubio felt the same frustration as his fellow rank-and-file Republicans have over the last two or more years:

During the 112th Congress, most major legislation was decided in closed-door negotiations that included only a handful of members, after which a bill was presented to rank-and-file lawmakers as a take-it-or-leave it proposition. This strategy caused frustration, particularly among House Republicans, and was partly responsible for Speaker John A. Boehner’s decision this year to renew his commitment to running legislation through “regular order.”

Rubio understands this frustration, which he has felt in the Senate as well. That’s why, during his media blitz on conservative talk radio back in January, he vowed to Rush Limbaugh and other influential hosts that the legislative process for an immigration overhaul would be transparent and deliberate, and that he would not be a party to jamming a bill through Congress.

Regular order would also allow Rubio the time he needs to show conservatives that he’s fighting for the principles that are important to them, regardless of the final makeup of the legislation and whether it passes.

In the end, Rubio is telling his colleagues, the perception of the legislative process here is as politically important to the success of the legislation as what’s in the bill.

Rubio is absolutely correct on all counts.  What’s more, he’s indispensable to the success of the bill — and the other Gang members know it, Politico reports:

Immigration reform is alive and kicking because Sen. Marco Rubio was there at conception. It will likely die if Rubio bolts in the end.

The possibility that Rubio could walk away, more than any other dynamic, is shaping the final details of new immigration laws, participants tell us.

Without Rubio, GOP leaders – and many Democrats – worry any bipartisan deal will be impossible to sell to conservatives.

This reality has been driving the closed-door action on immigration during the week since the Senate left town. It was Rubio’s reservations about the details of a temporary-worker program – which he insists is needed to help business and take pressure off the border — that nearly sank the package last week. And it was fear of his rejection that helped bring labor and business groups together on a Good Friday agreement that appears to have put the immigration deal on track for an announcement when the Senate returns next week.

Normal order will be necessary for any possibility of building confidence in it among American voters.  In fact, Rubio’s demand for normal order is actually more important than the bill itself or the issue it seeks to resolve.  Without accountability and open legislative processes, representative democracy becomes a faith-based exercise and politicians have no reason to defend their actions to their constituents.  Normal order should be the highest priority for Republicans in this Congress regardless of the issues involved, or the difficulties it creates for politicians who probably need more accountability than most others.