As the debate over immigration reform has played out over the past year, some conservatives have called on the GOP to oppose Gang of Eight–style comprehensive reform in order to “rebrand” Republicans as populist defenders of the working class who are not beholden to big business and its K Street allies.
Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour was not one of them.
Barbour, who has made millions lobbying for large corporations such as Microsoft and R. J. Reynolds, has been urging Republicans to pass comprehensive immigration reform since November 2012, just days after the GOP’s disastrous electoral defeat. Barbour is also a co-chairman of the Immigration Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center, which supports Gang of Eight–style reform. According to GOP congressional staffers, Barbour has been one of the most aggressive behind-the-scenes lobbyists for comprehensive reform, even reaching out to the Gang of Eight’s most ardent opponents.
But to those who want the Republican party to adopt a more populist message that distinguishes between pro-business and pro-free-market policies, Barbour is a fitting embodiment of the nexus between big business and K Street — the sort of crony capitalism that the GOP should be working to erode rather than foster.
As governor, Barbour helped his good friend and business partner Terry McAuliffe, who was recently elected Democratic governor of Virginia, secure a multimillion-dollar incentive package for his electric-car company, GreenTech Automotive, to set up shop in Mississippi. The firm has since been tarnished by controversy, specifically over efforts to raise capital via the federal government’s EB-5 visa program, which allows foreign nationals to obtain U.S. residency status in exchange for investing in businesses here.
As for Barbour himself, his “rank favoritism and special-interest deals” have raised the ire of libertarian populists such as Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner. Barbour’s political positions often suggest an unquestioning deference to business interests. He has expressed support for taxpayer-funded farm subsidies, many of which date back to the New Deal, and as governor he vetoed a popular eminent-domain-reform bill after promising Toyota he would use eminent domain to seize land for a facility the car company was planning to build in Mississippi. He has since become a formal lobbyist for Toyota.
Last month, Barbour co-authored a “Lobbyists’ Lament” in Politico Magazine with business partner Ed Rogers, defending the industry from its critics. The piece was ridiculed by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which noted that big business is a prime beneficiary of K Street activities because large corporations can afford to hire people like Barbour.
When it comes to the push for comprehensive immigration reform, proponents are backed by teams of lobbyists representing labor unions, Silicon Valley, and big business. The debate has focused almost exclusively on the question of whether to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, while largely ignoring the arguably more consequential provision of the Gang of Eight bill that would actually increase the number of low-skilled and temporary immigrants legally admitted to the country. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Gang’s plan would admit nearly twice as many legal immigrants (38 million) over the next ten years as the number projected under current law (22 million).
Despite the still-high unemployment rate, businesses are eager to get their hands on cheap labor; in the words of an aide to Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), the native workforce is rife with individuals who simply “can’t cut it.” Unions, meanwhile, are prepared to accept a decline in workers’ wages over the next decade, as projected by the CBO’s scoring of the Gang of Eight bill, in exchange for the millions of potential dues-paying members who would be brought into the country.
Millions of dollars have already been spent on lobbying for comprehensive reform, and as Representative John Yarmuth (D., Ky.) observed in October: “There is no money on the other side of the issue.” Heritage Action is the only heavyweight conservative group actively opposing comprehensive reform; others, such as FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, remain on the sidelines. Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) has been one of the few lawmakers to frame the debate in terms of the interests of American workers versus the “corporate titans who believe the immigration policy for our entire country should be modeled to pad their bottom line.”
Perhaps the fact that Sessions and his allies have succeeded thus far in stalling comprehensive immigration reform, despite its many deep-pocketed supporters, suggests there is political sense in his position. But the GOP leadership does not appear interested in going down that path. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) recently hired Rebecca Tallent, Barbour’s former colleague at the Bipartisan Policy Center, to help push immigration reform through the House.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.