Speaker Paul Ryan, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and President Trump are all portraying the compromise spending deal to fund the government through September 30 as a victory for Republican priorities. The agreement calls for more defense spending, more spending for border security, more for school choice, and other GOP policy goals. Most important, all three men stress, is an end to the Obama-era concept of "parity," that is, an arrangement by which if Republicans want to increase defense spending, that amount has to be matched dollar-for-dollar by an increase in domestic spending.
"We just broke that parity," Ryan told reporters Tuesday morning. "That's the biggest victory we could have had."
The two parties can debate who won what. But the fact is, the spending bill does much, much more than address a few high-profile issues. Anytime a bill stretches for 1,665 pages, as this one does, it's a safe bet there is a lot going on. And indeed, in this case, lawmakers have stuffed loads of pet priorities into the mammoth bill.
One of those priorities sure to cause controversy, if it becomes widely known, is a provision to greatly increase the number of temporary, low-wage foreign workers allowed into the United States. (In government-speak, "temporary" can mean a worker who spends up to nine months a year in the U.S. for multiple years.) The number of such workers is currently limited to 66,000 per year. Under the new spending bill, that could double.
Beyond increasing the number of foreign workers, the bill would also dilute or kill protections not only for them but for their American competitors.
It's right there on page 735, in a section dealing with H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to fill low-wage, seasonal, non-agricultural jobs in the United States. (The H-2A visa program covers agricultural work.) "Notwithstanding the numerical limitation set forth [in the law]," the bill says, "the Secretary of Homeland Security, after consultation with the Secretary of Labor, and upon the determination that the needs of American businesses cannot be satisfied in fiscal year 2017 with United States workers who are willing, qualified, and able to perform temporary nonagricultural labor, may increase the total number of aliens who may receive a visa [under the H-2B law]."
Lawmakers and other supporters of increasing H-2Bs argue that the change is needed because there are not enough American workers to fill low-wage jobs in landscaping, construction, seafood processing, hospitality, and other fields. But several experts disagree. While there are media stories with anecdotal accounts of worker shortages, Daniel Costa, director of immigration law at Washington's Economic Policy Institute, told me in an email exchange, "there's no credible evidence of labor shortages in H-2B jobs."
"The unemployment rate in the first quarter of 2017 for landscaping was 8.6 percent, 10 percent in construction, and 11.3 percent for farming, fishing, and forestry occupations — all much higher than the national unemployment rate of 4.5 percent," Costa noted in a blog post Tuesday.
The new legislation, therefore, could result in fewer job opportunities for American workers. In an email exchange, Ron Hira, a professor at Howard University and author of the book "Outsourcing America," noted that current visa law already enables employers "to bring in cheaper H-2B workers even when there are ample American workers."
"The Department of Labor promulgated sensible new regulations to rectify this imbalance, but those regulations are being gutted by this spending bill," Hira continued. "The upshot is that if the bill passes, the H-2B program will unnecessarily take jobs away from Americans, lower their wages, and allow guest workers to be exploited. It's a clear lose-lose for Hire American."
In addition to increasing the number of H-2Bs, the new provision would remove some key protections for U.S. workers. In an email conversation, Michael Hancock, a former top official in the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, said that at present, there is a requirement that U.S. workers in the same geographical area as H-2B workers "are entitled to at least as generous wages and terms of employment as H-2B workers." The visa provision in the spending bill, Hancock said, "forbids the Department of Labor from enforcing this protection on behalf of U.S. workers."
The H-2B program can also have disastrous effects on foreign workers. Hira pointed to the case of Signal International, an Alabama shipbuilder which was bankrupted by multi-million-dollar claims of human trafficking. "The company imported hundreds of welders from India through labor brokers," Hira noted, adding, "Do we really have a shortage of welders? Or an inability to train them? The guestworkers were kept in mobile homes on the shipyard and restricted from leaving it. It was a story you'd expect in the UAE, not the United States."
So why would Congress expand the program — especially by a process that guaranteed the policy change could not be extensively debated? The simple reason is that a lot of lawmakers of both parties have wanted to change the H-2B rules for a long time. The proposal would probably not pass in a standalone bill, so they have slipped it into deadline-sensitive, must-pass legislation.
The effort is bipartisan. To look at just one example, the desire to loosen rules regarding H-2B visas in the seafood industry brought together liberal Democratic lawmakers from coastal states like Maryland with conservative Republican lawmakers from coastal states like Louisiana and North Carolina. "[Former Democratic Sen.] Barbara Mikulski affectionately called [North Carolina Republican Sen.] Thom Tillis 'Catfish Tillis' for his support of gutting safeguards in the H-2B program," noted Ron Hira.
Throughout the campaign and his first months in office, Trump often cited a simple economic policy: "Buy American, Hire American." (Though the president himself hired H-2B workers at his Mar-a-Lago resort, now the Southern White House.) The audiences at Trump's rallies cheered when Trump pledged to protect American jobs from low-paid foreign competition. Now, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill seem determined to send a bill to Trump's desk that does just the opposite.