It's common knowledge that the US Congress isn't getting much done because of the ideological chasm between the two parties. In certain areas, it's understandable, if not excusable. After all, the future of our country will be shaped by grand decisions over whether and how much to cut spending and raise taxes.
But the story of how a high-tech immigration bill died last week shows how ridiculous partisan politics and petty power plays are preventing Congress from acting even when everybody agrees.
In mid-September, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced a bill to increase by 55,000 the number of green cards available to foreign students who graduate in the United States with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). There seemed to be broad bipartisan support. The high-tech industry was excited -- it looked as if government might finally act on the idea of "stapling a green card to every diploma." A broad swath of the industry, including Apple, Microsoft, IBM, HP, and IEEE-USA, strongly supported the proposal.
Then the bickering started. It turns out that Smith's bill would end the diversity lottery for green cards, in which 55,000 cards per year are granted randomly to any and all comers. So net-net, the number of green cards allotted would stay the same. And the Republicans would be killing the lottery, a program they've criticized for years. Once Democrats realized this, a group led by Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) countered with a bill that provides the cards without ending the lottery, effectively increasing the total allotment by 55,000.
The result? Nothing passed; No action that might have eased the shortage of skilled workers in high-tech and given talented foreign students a way to stay in this country, possibly founding Silicon Valley startups that could grow into tech powerhouses employing thousands of people. (Sergey Brin of Google is a good example.) Instead, we will continue to send them back home to enrich their native lands.
"Both bills, introduced with provisions unacceptable to the other party, make for political theater but leave the fundamental problem of immigration reform unresolved," writes Alex Nowrasteh, immigration-policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, in the latest issue of the National Journal.
The two sides might have worked out a deal if they had wanted to, says Stewart J. Lawrence in The Huffington Post. For example, they could have kept the diversity lottery but trimmed it to 25,000 visas and given the STEM graduates the other 25,000. "But that would have required a genuine willingness by the two parties not to play politics with immigration," he writes.
While tech companies generally refrained from criticism (while planning their next lobbying moves, no doubt), Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) CEO Dean Garfield hinted at the industry's frustration. "Having competing bills on this issue adds a layer of complexity that shouldn't exist given the shared goal among the parties," he told The Hill newspaper.
Given the election, it's unrealistic to think this will come up again until the next Congress. We can only hope that a new Congress will put aside politics long enough to agree that they agree. As Schumer said after the bill went down in flames: "There is too broad a consensus in favor of this policy to settle for gridlock."