A remarkable thing happened in Washington, D.C., last week. National leaders of business and labor hammered out an outline on immigration reform. This might not only give a major boost to a new immigration policy; it might also show a path around the gridlock that has driven the nation into budgetary face-offs month after month.
The key to the deal is agreement on a guest-worker program, which labor has long opposed. The idea is to create a new program of immigrant worker visas, based on estimates of labor need as determined by a federal bureau. Business accepted the concepts of a variable labor pool, and, even more important, that the workers would not be tied to a single employer. Labor was adamant that workers not be subject to deportation for not getting along with their bosses.
While the details are important, the politics, both symbolic and real, may be even more significant. Each in their own ways, both business and labor have been struggling to get back into their party’s strategic calculations, and they may have found a way to do so together.
Since President Barack Obama’s re-election, House Republicans have thrown the country into one budget crisis after another in order to derail the president’s agenda. The business community has been unhappy with threats against paying for the nation’s debt, fiscal cliffs and now the sequester. But business had been largely unsuccessful in its struggle to move the House Republicans and a number of Republican senators, most of whom represent safe conservative districts or states whose Republican primary voters favor confrontation with the president. Not surprisingly, a conservative Republican senator, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 22) criticizing the business role in the deal: “The chamber’s primary goal has never been to establish a lawful immigration system and secure our borders, but to get as much cheap labor as possible.” The Times article also noted, however, that Senate bipartisan negotiators were delighted with the deal, and even the No. 2 House leader, Republican Eric Cantor, was upbeat.
Labor has had its own frustrations with the Democrats. Unlike in California, organized labor is weaker in Washington, D.C., and in their dealings with the White House, labor leaders have sometimes felt like outside agitators fighting against what they see as too much conciliation toward Republicans. By helping in a big way toward a major administration goal, and by engaging with a business sector that might yet be able to have some clout with Republicans, labor has proved its value.
Further, Democrats will need a big labor push in 2014 to avoid the off-year low turnout calamity that brought the Tea Party to Congress in 2010. The same could be said about business with its constituency. Many in business fear that the isolation of the Republican Party will eventually hurt them both economically and politically, and they have been pushing the party to be more moderate and less reflexively anti-government.
This business-labor agreement points to a larger shift in the thinking of the Obama White House about how to get a second-term agenda accomplished. For a long time, Obama has had faith that he can persuade conservative Republicans to accept his agenda because it “makes sense.” It was always hard to see why that would be a compelling argument to politicians, even those not gripped in a Tea Party ideology. And by constantly negotiating and seeking deals, he elevated the power of those who keep manufacturing the crises that seem to require negotiating. The wiser move is to isolate the recalcitrants by building a larger and larger block of interests that coalesce around the White House agenda. We are already seeing this strategy emerge, as Republican governors begin to accept Medicaid expansion under the new health care law because of pressure from hospitals in their states, and as those same governors signal to their fellow Republicans in D.C. that to go through with sequestration would have devastating consequences back home.
A better strategy has now emerged, one that meets the needs of the administration to make progress and even of conservatives to show that they are opposing him. If House Republican leaders continue to poke holes in the Hastert Rule, which dictated that nothing can be brought to the floor of the House without the support of a majority of the Republican caucus, then conservatives can still go on record in full-throated opposition without the Republican Party being blamed in full for blocking progress. Immigration may be a big test of this approach, should the combination of a bipartisan team in the Senate and the business-labor alliance create a large enough power bloc to make progress in the House inevitable.
In any case, a business-labor agreement on anything must be seen as good news for a struggling American government.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.