How the Republican party can help struggling Americans, and itself
When Americans went to the polls in 2012, the following was true: Work-force participation had sunk to its lowest level in 35 years, wages had fallen below 1999 levels, and 47 million Americans were on food stamps. Yet Mitt Romney, the challenger to the incumbent president, lost lower- and middle-income voters by an astonishing margin. Among voters earning $30,000 to $50,000, he trailed by 15 points, and among voters earning under $30,000 he trailed by 28 points.
And what did the GOP’s brilliant consultant class conclude from this resounding defeat? They declared that the GOP must embrace amnesty. The Republican National Committee dutifully issued a report calling for a “comprehensive immigration reform” that would inevitably increase the flow of low-skilled immigration, reducing the wages and living standards of the very voters whose trust the GOP had lost.
Over the past four decades, as factories shuttered and blue-collar jobs were outsourced or automated, net immigration quadrupled. Yet the corporate-consultant class has pronounced that an insufficient level of immigration is the problem. A more colossal misreading of the political moment has rarely occurred.
Perhaps the most important political development now unfolding in the U.S. is the public’s growing loss of faith in our political and financial elites of both parties. To open the ears of disaffected voters, the GOP must break publicly from the elite immigration consensus of Wall Street and Davos. Republicans have a clear path to building a conservative majority if they free themselves from the corporate consultants and demonstrate to the American public that the GOP is the only party aligned with the core interests, concerns, and beliefs of everyday hardworking citizens.
But the immigration “principles” offered by House GOP leaders imply that record immigration levels must be increased further to meet “the needs of employers.” One such GOP proposal — to provide the food industry with half a million low-skilled workers each year — was polled by Rasmussen. Nearly 70 percent of independent voters opposed it.
“Most business leaders have long favored more open immigration. Different businesses want different kinds of people,” a prominent GOP fundraiser declared on TV. “A restaurant may want waiters and cooks, a hospital wants nurses and doctors, a university wants physicists, a business like Exelon needs more engineers.” Asked by the interviewer about hiring U.S. workers for open jobs, he replied that many of those now unemployed are “unable to compete for them.”
Is that the message of a winning party? It might win a majority of votes at a dinner party in a gated community in Bel Air, but it is an act of profound delusion to think that plan can form the basis of a nationwide Republican resurgence.
Democrats in Washington have already cast their lot. A recent report from the Center for Immigration Studies shows that all net employment gains from 2000 to 2013 — a period of record legal immigration — went to immigrant workers, and yet the immigration plan championed by the White House and congressional Democrats would triple the number of immigrants given permanent legal status over the next decade, and it would double the annual flow of guest workers to compete for jobs in every sector of the U.S. economy. The Democrats’ plan delivers for international corporations, open-borders groups, and even workers now living in other countries. But the interests of American workers are sacrificed completely.
Republicans can either join the Democrats as the second political party in Washington advocating uncontrolled immigration, or they can offer a principled alternative and represent the American workers Democrats have jettisoned. The Left embraces an agenda that benefits only the fortunate few: nationalized health care; intrusive government; surging welfare costs; high taxes; endless deficits; Federal Reserve stimulus, which helps big firms at the expense of small savers; government climate regulation that drives up energy costs; maze-like regulations that only the largest companies can navigate; bureaucratic interference in schools and homes; and an increasingly open-borders immigration plan. Each of these policies directly harms working Americans. Each of these policies serves the political interests of Democrats while entailing lower pay, fewer hours, and higher unemployment for dedicated American workers.
Wherever the policies of the Left have been faithfully implemented, as in Detroit, human tragedy has followed. The future offered by the Left — a shrinking work force struggling to fund a growing welfare state — is not only unsustainable but uncompassionate. Compassion demands that we spare no effort in helping millions now jobless to realize the dream of financial independence. This is the urgent economic task of the 21st century.
Too often, Republicans have offered a passive reply to the Left’s refrain that the GOP does not care for those in need. The usual GOP responses — that the Left is engaged in “class warfare,” or is not presenting “credible solutions,” or is “kicking the can down the road” — fail to rebut the underlying slander. Instead, Republicans should hold the Left accountable for the social and moral harm its policies have inflicted on every community that has suffered for decades under its disastrous policy regime.
The GOP cannot win a bidding war with Democrats, carried from election cycle to election cycle in perpetuity, about who is willing to embrace the most generous amnesty and the most expansive immigration policy. Moreover, polling shows that a majority of Americans wish to see immigration curbed and that, by a margin of three to one, those earning under $30,000 — the very group the GOP is hemorrhaging — favor a reduction over an increase.
Is it not time for the GOP to make a clean public break from the special-interest immigration lobby and to let Democrats own — solely, completely, and exclusively — the unwise and unpopular policies they are pushing on these groups’ behalf? Isn’t it time we made President Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and each of their rank-and-file members defend their near-unanimous embrace of an immigration plan that is so contrary to the wishes and interests of the American people?
Republicans should then outline a detailed agenda animated by the moral goal of easing the burden on workers while helping millions now unemployed transition from joblessness and dependency to work and rising wages.
The last 40 years have been a period of uninterrupted large-scale immigration into the U.S., coinciding with increased joblessness, falling wages, failing schools, and a growing welfare state. Would not the sensible, conservative thing to do be to slow down for a bit, allow wages to rise and assimilation to occur, and help the millions struggling here today — immigrant and native-born alike — transition from dependency to self-sufficiency? Indeed, the heart of the GOP’s pro-worker, pro-middle-class agenda should be a bold reforming of our welfare system. The current welfare structure is unfair both to the taxpayers who fund it and to the struggling Americans it has failed to rescue from poverty.
Currently, the federal government administers roughly 80 means-tested poverty-assistance and welfare programs, on which it spends $750 billion a year — that’s a larger cost than defense, Medicare, or Social Security. It is a sprawling, growing bureaucracy with almost no meaningful oversight or guiding vision. Federal agencies seek higher enrollment to swell their budgets (the USDA, for instance, trains food-stamp recruiters on how to “overcome the word ‘No’”), while states have an incentive to overlook fraud so they can get a larger slice of the federal budget.
If these myriad programs were combined into a single manageable credit, with clear job-training and work requirements, not only would it cut down drastically on fraud but it would help struggling Americans rise out of poverty and into good-paying jobs — uplifting the worker while reducing costs for the taxpayer.
What if, instead of applying for guest workers, companies applied to hire workers receiving relevant job training at a local welfare office? Able-bodied adults, in turn, would be required to accept employment or lose benefits. In other words: instead of a guest-worker program, a welfare-to-work program.
Would that not be in the national interest? Would that not improve the quality of life in struggling families, schools, and communities?
Such a plan should be combined with a series of conservative policies all united by that common theme: shrinking the welfare rolls and growing the employment rolls. This pro-worker conservative agenda would create millions of good-paying jobs without adding a dime to our dangerous debt:
Producing more American energy to create good-paying jobs right here in the U.S.
Streamlining the tax code to allow our businesses to grow and our workers to compete on a more level global playing field.
Cracking down on illicit foreign trading practices that close our plants and send our manufacturing jobs overseas.
Eliminating every unnecessary regulation that destroys jobs and reduces productivity.
Repealing Obamacare to save American jobs and maintain wages.
Enforcing an immigration plan that serves the national interest, not the special interests.
Converting the welfare office into a job-training center.
Balancing the federal budget to make the government more efficient and the future more confident and secure.
Each of these policies would help struggling workers transition from joblessness and dependency to work and rising wages. Each of these policies would grow the middle class — not the government class in Washington, D.C. And each of these policies would provide Americans with a clear answer to the following question: Which party in Washington represents you?
– Mr. Sessions is the junior U.S. senator from Alabama and the ranking Republican member of the Senate Budget Committee.