Speaking at a party retreat, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told his colleagues that the party had spent too much time talking about the concerns of business owners and entrepreneurs and not enough about the concerns of that majority who were not (and in many cases did not want to be) business owners. It is a little embarrassing that a working politician actually had to say that, but Cantor’s comments represent some progress, for the problem goes very deep in the Republican political class. At the same retreat, Cantor and the House Republican leadership demonstrated that, while they are trying to learn to talk about the concerns of employees, they are practically focused on doing the bidding of the Washington business lobbies. The same holds true when they talk about immigration reform.
The House Republican leadership has come out with a set of immigration “principles.” The House Republican leadership statement contains a great deal of verbiage about enforcement, but both supporters of the statement (like Haley Barbour) and opponents (like William Kristol) agree that the principles amount to putting legalization before enforcement. We have already seen what happens when Congress provides amnesty first and enforcement later. The 1986 amnesty put legalization first. The enforcement never happens. The House principles also come out in favor of guest worker programs aimed at the desires of “the agricultural industry, among others.”
While they use different language, the House principles amount to another version of the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration plan. They both order legalization before enforcement structure. The Gang of Eight deal also includes an enormous increase in low-skill immigration and one can expect that the House Republican leadership will attempt to do the same thing. The House Republican leadership has already started the process with their proposal for low-skill guest worker programs.
America’s current low-skill worker population (including both foreign-born and native-born) has a 9.8 percent unemployment rate and a 43.7 percent labor force participation. The Third Way found a long-term decline in the earnings of low-skill males and that declining wages coincided with increased rates of family disruption and worse educational outcomes for boys from these disrupted families. Economist George Borjas found that increased low-skill immigration tended to push down the wages in that sector of the labor market.
The House Republican establishment that has just discovered the majority of America is now provoking a civil war within the party in order to sharply increase low-skill immigration. Reforming immigration policy is low on the list of the public’s policy priorities. There is wide bipartisan public support for shifting future immigration flows in the direction of skills and English proficiency. Canada has gone to this type of naturalization system, and polls indicate that this is what Americans want too. Why is the Republican political class taking on its own voting base and the general public in order to increase the labor supply in a sector of the labor market where the unemployment rate is high and wages are stagnant?
The answer is obvious when we remember that this is the same party establishment that forgot that most Americans were not business owners. Like the ghosts in the film The Sixth Sense, the Washington Republican political class only sees what they want to see. The business lobbies want ever-greater labor market competition and reasons can be manufactured.
A few days ago on his CNBC show, Lawrence Kudlow interviewed Haley Barbour. Barbour, a former RNC chairman turned lobbyist for Mark Zuckerberg’s “conservative” amnesty front group, is a living embodiment of the intersection of the Washington Republican operative class and the lobbying industry. And yet it was Kudlow who was most interesting. In the course of asking Barbour a very friendly question, Kudlow argued that increasing unemployment and declining labor force participation meant that we needed increased low-skill immigration. For the Republican Washington political class, anything seems preferable to paying higher wages to low-skill workers when the economy improves.
The American low-skill population is complex. It includes many illegal aliens. Many of these illegal aliens have lived in the US for a long time and are part of mixed-status families. Any immigration reform should involve integrating this population fully into American civic life. But any immigration reform should also give a decent chance to low-skill workersboth the foreign-born and the native-born. This means limiting future immigration in that sectorthe low-skilled sectorof the economy where unemployment is high and wages have been stagnant for a generation for the sake of the low-skill workers themselves.
This should be an easy decision for a party of the center-right. The problem is the obtuseness of the Republican Washington political operative and lobbyist classes (to the extent those are even distinct entities). Those classes spent the 2012 election only listening to their donors and lobbying clients until the only world they could imagine was the world their donors described. The members of the Republican Washington establishment (and those politicians who take their cues from the Washington establishment) hear what they want to hear. There are enough of them that a consensus of the Republican lobbyist-industrial complex can seem like a consensus of the party and of the country. Eric Cantor’s flashes of insight notwithstanding, the biggest roadblock to a populist limited government politics is the size, wealth, self-confidence, and insularity of the Republican operative and lobbyist classes.