Maybe Congress needs another poke.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Congress and Silicon Valley Are Fumbling Immigration

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
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President Barack Obama’s speech on immigration reform was, for the technology industry, bound to be a disappointment. He promised several incremental, marginally helpful changes, but couldn’t address the cap on H1-B visas, an issue that many insiders say is the most pressing for the tech companies.

Tech executives at companies like Facebook argue that H1-Bs -- non-immigrant visas that allow foreign workers in certain fields such as tech to work temporarily in the United States -- keep a steady drip of top talent coursing through their industry’s veins. But Congress, not the president, sets the cap on this vital resource.

If the U.S. tech industry is as determined to win the global talent war as it says it is, then Obama's speech shouldn’t just be a disappointment. It should be a rallying cry. Players in digital hubs such as San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, New York, and elsewhere won’t get the reform they want until they gain the Washington D.C. influence that they’ve been trying to build for oh these many years.

Companies such as Google and Facebook, along with their lobbyists, haven’t been able to push through an agenda that generally includes immigration reform, surveillance reform, patent reform, cybersecurity and regulation. It’s not for a lack of money. Only business associations, pharmaceuticals and insurance companies have outspent tech lobbyists in Washington this year. The tech industry spent nearly $72 million on lobbying in the first six months of this year, and about $142 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

There are lots of high profile, powerful people who move with ease between D.C. and Silicon Valley, too. This group includes ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, former chief technology officer for the U.S. government Todd Park, cybersecurity investor Ted Schlein and Dropbox director and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, just to name a few.

Even so, a measure to rein in the National Security Agency’s massive data collection efforts just failed to pass in the Senate, even after the bill already had been gutted. Patent reform efforts have also died. And with my colleagues at Bloomberg View saying that any hope of a bipartisan immigration bill is basically nil, the tech industry can look forward to watching its three core legislative issues die on Capitol Hill.

Certainly this track record is in part due to the fact that tech is, in Beltway years, a relative newcomer to the world of influence peddling. And one could argue that Congressional gridlock has thwarted even the canniest lobbyists on a variety of topics. But some things have gotten through years of a do-nothing Congress, most notably the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, which in its later incarnations was basically drafted by the banking industry.

Lobbyists and tech insiders have been circling the Hill for about a decade now, having realized that as software circled the world and the industry boomed, tech professionals would inevitably have run-ins -- some good and some bad -- with the physical world. They formed industry groups stocked with Silicon Valley luminaries like FWD.us, which boasted the famed VC investor Jim Breyer, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates as founders. FWD.us never made much headway on immigration reform and its president stepped down in September. It seemed like a cautionary tale. The industry was trying to substitute clout in the form of boldface names, much-admired companies and a large war chest for clout in the form of true political savvy.

You get the sense that tech’s lobbying efforts yield spotty results in part because their messaging isn’t very sophisticated. It feels reminiscent of so many other instances of tech's tone-deafness -- from the troubles that dog Uber nearly every time the rideshare company enters a new city to health tech companies that flout government rules to the Dropbox employees who fought with kids over who got to use a San Francisco soccer field (the children who had been playing there already or the techies who used their smartphones to sign up to use the field).

In those cases (and so many more), the cities, regulators and kids were mere obstacles for the techies to poo-poo away. I don’t know much about politicians, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how they like to be treated when they’re hearing from special interest groups, especially those with whom they don’t agree.

It will take lots of sophisticated negotiators coming together to pass something as contentious as an immigration bill, as well as lots of money, connections and clout. Those last three things are easy for the tech industry to muster. But we’re still waiting on the first.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net