Politics & Policy

How the Republican Congress Expanded Guest-Worker Immigration

House speaker Paul Ryan (Win McNamee/Getty)

One of the shortest measures in the $1.15 trillion government-funding bill passed last month generated outsize controversy in conservative circles.

Tucked away on page 701 of the 2,009-page spending bill is a provision that some say quadruples the number of H-2B visas available to guest workers this year. Its inclusion drew the ire of several House and Senate conservatives and sparked accusations that Speaker Paul Ryan had broken his pledge to keep immigration reform off the table until 2017.

Much confusion has surrounded how the measure was included in the omnibus, with lawmakers and pundits alike claiming bitterly that the House slipped it in at the last minute. The truth is more complicated: The measure sat quietly for seven months after the Appropriations Committee approved it in July, never reaching the House floor for a vote. When it wound up in the massive omnibus spending package passed through Congress before Christmas, several lawmakers complained that they were blindsided by the provision, and they argued that Republican leadership was continuing to ignore voters’ concerns about immigration’s negative impact on wages.

The provision was introduced on July 6 in the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security, which is chaired by Representative John Carter (R., Texas) and counts among its members Maryland Republican Andy Harris, who has long been a vocal supporter of the H-2B program. It was included as part of the full Homeland Security appropriations bill, which had unanimous support from Republicans on the subcommittee. From there, it moved to the full Appropriations Committee for a markup in consultation with the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte.

RELATED: Increasing the Number of Guest-Worker Visas Will Hurt America’s Most Vulnerable Workers

After passing the full committee on July 14, the measure sat virtually unnoticed until catching fire shortly before final passage of the omnibus in December, when outside groups such as NumbersUSA picked up on its inclusion. “We read about it in the press,” says one House Freedom Caucus member who voted against the omnibus. “I never heard anything about the issue at all.”

Such sentiments only add to an enduring sense of anger that lawmakers don’t — or can’t possibly — read the enormous pieces of legislation they vote on. Corry Schiermeyer, a spokeswoman for Carter, maintains that members have little excuse for being unaware of the measure. “This was a very transparent process, and the H-2B Visa provision was not a silent issue.”

“At the end of day, it’s [incumbent] upon members and their staff to be knowledgeable, especially if it’s an issue that’s important to them,” she says. “It’s not like it’s Obamacare, with thousands of pages to consider in two days. This is seven-plus months.”

Freedom Caucus member Mo Brooks says that claim is misleading. “It’s not the same bill. There are thousands of bills that are passed in committee,” he says. “It’s one thing to know those bills are out there. It’s another thing to know what will actually come from the negotiation table to the House floor.”

#share#Since taking the reins as speaker, Ryan has championed a return to regular order—that is, honoring the process of moving bills from committee to the House floor for a full vote, allowing members to consider all amendments. The Homeland Security appropriations bill, which was written while former House speaker John Boehner was running the show, never made it to the floor because of the subversion of this process. Thus knowledge of the bill’s text, including the H-2B expansion, was limited to committee members, along with any member who combed through the 75 pages posted online. Those who read only the bill’s summary and report would have had a difficult time catching the H-2B expansion: It isn’t mentioned at all in the bill’s summary and warrants just one sentence on page 91 of the report.

Yet there’s some truth to the argument — put forth by Schiermeyer and others who have been forced to defend the H-2B provision after the fact — that members had more than one opportunity to educate themselves on the provision’s contents. Upon taking the speaker’s gavel in October, Ryan resolved to secure passage of the six appropriations bills that had been completed behind closed doors on Boehner’s watch. In one of his first conference meetings as speaker, he offered to discharge those bills, including the Homeland Security bill, for thorough vetting on the House floor. But given that mere weeks remained until the government-funding deadline, with six more appropriations bills yet to be packaged and debated, members chose to move forward sight unseen.

RELATED: Jeff Sessions: Omnibus Bill Is a ‘Betrayal’ of GOP Voters

In place of sending those previous six bills to the floor for discussion, the committees scheduled individual “executive sessions,” where members had the opportunity to talk through each bill’s provisions with the committee chairman responsible for it.

The session for Homeland Security took place on November 18. There is no attendance record for the session, the Appropriations office says, but Schiermeyer says that only “a dozen or so members” showed up. It is unclear whether the H-2B expansion was discussed.

As the omnibus vote drew closer, and more and more lawmakers became aware of the provision, Ryan was approached by Freedom Caucus members to discuss it, according to an aide to one HFC member. The aide says members told Ryan the provision’s inclusion “would be problematic and would signal to some outside conservative groups that he would go against his promise on immigration.”

RELATED: Immigration Cronyism Is Alive and Well & Living in the House of Representatives

But stripping the measure would have represented an abuse of the speaker’s power, says AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan. “Speaker Ryan committed to allow committees to take the lead in drafting legislation, and that’s exactly what happened with this provision. . . . He’s speaker of the House, not dictator of the House, and [he’s] not going to be in the practice of interfering with the will of his conference,” she says.

Another Ryan aide refutes the charge that the speaker violated his promise not to push immigration reform: “He didn’t say the House would not touch programs related to visas, [but] rather that it wouldn’t pass comprehensive immigration reform. This is not that, and not even close.”

The provision was equally controversial in the Senate. An aide to Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, the upper chamber’s foremost immigration hawk, says his boss was “assured by [Senate Appropriations Committee chairman] Thad Cochran that the measure would not be in the omnibus.” Despite Cochran’s word, the provision was ultimately included.

“We’re not questioning the integrity of the assurance,” the aide says. “Leadership took over negotiations, and it was clearly out of Cochran’s hands.”

RELATED: The H1-B Visa Program Gives American Workers a Raw Deal

One group of lawmakers lobbied the Senate Appropriations Committee to preserve the H-2B expansion measure over a month before the final vote on the omnibus. On November 9, eight representatives and four senators co-signed a letter urging Cochran and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Barbara Mikulski, and their House counterparts, Hal Rogers and Nita Lowey, to preserve the measure in both chambers’ spending bills. “Relief for seasonal businesses that use the H-2B temporary program is needed urgently,” they wrote.

Their request was ultimately granted, yet five out of the letter’s eight House signees — Harris, Patrick Meehan, Leonard Lance, Frank Guinta, and Garrett Graves — went on to vote against the final bill.

#related#So did Goodlatte, another vocal proponent of H-2B expansion. In November, the Virginia Republican joined Harris, Steve Chabot, and Charles Boustany in authoring a bill to up the number of guest-worker visas, using virtually the same language as the provision ultimately included in the omnibus. Though their bill would expand the program indefinitely, rather than just for 2016 as the appropriations bill does, it was the main source of frenzied claims that the H-2B expansion was slipped into the omnibus last minute, due to its identical language and time of introduction. (In fact, it has yet to even clear committee.)

Even without support from many of the measure’s most avid backers, however, the omnibus passed, and the H-2B expansion along with it — leaving a bad taste in the mouths of immigration hawks who are vowing to learn from the loss.

“This is the No. 2 issue in the air right now after terrorism — the effect of immigration on American wages,” says Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat. “I don’t think they tried to hide it, but when it’s thrown in your face last minute . . . that shows you the problem when you depart from regular order.”

“Paul Ryan promised that’s going to change this year,” Brat says. “We’re going to apply pressure to make sure that happens.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.


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