And They Call This Democracy?

Norman Matloff

University of California at Davis

October 21, 2000

They don't even bother to hide it anymore. The role of Money Politics has become so entrenched that people speak of it as casually as they might discuss ordering a pizza. Such is the case for the law enacted this month to increase the quota for the H-1B work visa, under which U.S. employers will be allowed to import more than 200,000 foreign workers per year, largely in the high-tech area. This was the second H-1B increase, the first one having been enacted in 1998. The manner in which the law was passed this year provides a case study in the demise of American democracy.

Let them eat bytes

A major supporter of the legislation, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), openly said, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs...This is a very important issue for the high-tech executives who give the money." A 1998 Harris poll had found that 82% of Americans opposed the H-1B increase that year, but of course they are not the ones "who give the money."

A remark from Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) may have been a bit less accepting in tone, but equally blunt. Commenting on the 96-1 vote the bill enjoyed in the Senate this year, Bennett said, "Once it's clear (the visa bill) is going to get through, everybody signs up so nobody can be in the position of being accused of being against high tech. There were, in fact, a whole lot of folks against it, but because they are tapping the high-tech community for campaign contributions, they don't want to admit that in public."

The vote in the House, which immediately followed the one in the Senate, was equally farcical. In the late afternoon, the members were told that there would be no further voting that day, so they went home. Yet that evening a "stealth" vote on a carbon copy of the Senate version of the bill was held anyway, with only 40 out of 435 members present.

No chance to add mitigating provisions

There actually had been some members who had planned to offer mitigating amendments to the bill, but they were slickly bypassed by the maneuver. And the ruse neatly resolved another knotty problem which had faced the House leadership. There had been two House bills on H-1B, one by Immigration Subcommittee Chair Lamar Smith (R-Texas), and the other by David Dreier (R-Calif.). Industry supported the Dreier bill but was adamantly opposed to the Smith bill, which they said imposed "onerous" restrictions on employers. Yet the Smith bill was the one in the parliamentary driver's seat, as it had already passed committee. By voting on the Senate version of the bill, which was similar to the Dreier version anyway, the problem was averted.

Smith had offended industry by having the gall to point out that no study, other than those performed by industry and its allies, had ever demonstrated a high-tech labor shortage, the ostensible rationale for importing more foreign workers. Even the Department of Commerce had stated that available data were insufficient to determine whether a labor shortage exists. And Smith had had the temerity include in his bill a provision setting a $40,000 salary floor for the H-1Bs. To ordinary folks this might seem reasonable for a profession in which the median salary is over $60,000, but it was unacceptable to employers, many of whom have been exploiting their H-1B programmers.

Even if Smith's bill had passed with any semblance to its original form, the industry lobbyists would have emasculated the bill's provisions in their implementation by the Executive Branch. The worker-protection requirements enacted in the 1998 bill, weak as they were, have yet to be implemented by the Clinton administration, two years later.


Clinton, by the way, had coyly suggested for 10 months in 1998 that he would not sign that year's bill. Yet the day after he did sign it, he embarked upon an extensive fundraising tour of Silicon Valley. His office, of course, dismissed the juxtaposition of events as a coincidence.

Another "day-after coincidence" occurred after Clinton signed the bill this year. The 1998 bill had directed the National Research Council to study the impact of the H-1B program on American workers, allegations of rampant age discrimination in the field, and so on. The NRC appointed a committee to study these issues, stacking it with industry representatives (e.g. from Microsoft and Intel) and their allies. Nevertheless, the rumor in DC circles in late summer, 2000, was that a pro-programmer/engineer minority in the committee were stridently demanding that the report contain material which would have undermined the arguments in favor of increasing the H-1B quota. Apparently this prompted the NRC to delay release of the report until after the bill was enacted. It had been set for release on September 1, but that date came and went with no report. Then, the day after the president signed the bill into law, the NRC announced release of the report.

No room for reason

In passing the H-1B increase this year, Congress ignored its own research arm, the General Accounting Office. Just a couple of weeks before the vote this year, the GAO, highly respected for its impartial (and typically understated) analyses of controversial issues, issued a report finding that the H-1B was plagued by lack of protection for both American and H-1B workers, and riddled with fraud. Yet no one in the Senate and House debates on the bill made so much as a mention of the GAO report, or for that matter of recent expose's of H-1B fraud and exploitation in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

If Congress won't listen to the GAO counter to the industry claims, it will be even more oblivious to the arguments raised by organizations critical of the H-1B program, and that of course is precisely what happened. Immigration-reform organizations, notably FAIR and NumbersUSA, actively opposed the bill, as did professional organizations such as the American Engineering Association and the American Programmers Guild. Their arguments fell on deaf ears, and in the Senate's case, no ears -- Sen. Spencer Abraham's Immigration Subcommittee invited no critics of the H-1B program to testify at its hearings on this bill.

An electrical engineering professional group of some 200,000 members, IEEE-USA, had lobbied vigorously against the H-1B increase in 1998, but in response to heavy pressure from its corporate and academic members, was, by its own admission, quite muted in its activities this year. For example, they removed a file from their Web site which had been effective in their lobbying efforts in 1998: Their "Misfortune 500" file had profiled 500 experienced engineers who were having trouble finding engineering work. And they hired Paul Donnelly, an advocate of liberal immigration policy, for their lobbying activities. Donnelly convinced IEEE-USA to abandon its opposition to importation of foreign labor, saying that the organization should instead argue for an accelerated greencard process for the foreign workers.

Various African-American interest organizations, notably John Templeton's Coalition for Fair Employment and the Urban League, also lobbied against the bill. Templeton had presented testimony to the House Immigration Subcommittee concerning unemployed black engineers and programmers, but as has been typical in U.S. history, politicians sympathetic to African-American causes gave priority to corporate immigration demands. The White House, as well as black members of Congress such as Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), chose to take the politically-safe route of appropriating funds to train future black engineers, rather than facing the question of why some existing black engineers were unemployed.

Government of the industry, by the industry, and for the industry

Both major political parties freely admit that their top priority in soliciting campaign donations is now the high-tech industry. As a result, they have been hell-bent to please the industry. Absolutely nothing else matters, least of all the integrity of a "noble experiment" in government admired around the world for two centuries. The Founding Fathers' cherished notion of "checks and balances" has now devolved into "campaign checks and bank balances."