The tech industry is way more popular than Congress. You can test this hypothesis with one simple question.
What would you rather own, the iPhone 5 or a member of Congress?
The answer is, obviously, an iPhone 5.
A member of Congress is much more expensive, and still comes with a two-year contract. And even if you could tuck a Congress person in your pocket, they aren’t easily customizable and almost impossible to reboot.
That’s what the tech industry is learning after failing to win passage Thursday of a STEM (short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) visa bill for advanced degree grads of U.S. universities.
The STEM visa bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) had almost no chance of passing, but yet the tech industry threw all its support behind it.
Smith’s bill was doomed for two reasons.
First, it was being introduced under a rule suspension that required two-third votes, meaning some 50 Democrats had to vote “yes” for passage.
Second, and more importantly, Smith’s bill was drawing opposition from comprehensive immigration reformers, who have successfully blocked previous piecemeal approaches to immigration reform.
The Democrats had their own bill by U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that, unlike Smith’s bill, didn’t wipe out the diversity lottery to create 55,000 STEM visas. The diversity lottery is a random giveaway of permanent visas to underrepresented countries. There are other differences between the bills but, politically, the lottery is the big one.
Both sides tried to compromise. They introduced separate bills only after talks failed. Lofgren’s bill was immediately DOA because the Republicans control the House.
At this point, the tech industry could have backed away. It could have called for a bipartisan measure. Instead it bet on Smith’s bill.
Almost every major tech organization and company, including Microsoft, Apple, HP, Intel, Oracle and IBM, signed a letter in support of the Republican bill.
Lofgren’s bill was ignored by almost everyone. Almost.
None of the listed members of a newly created group, The Internet Association, which includes Amazon, AOL, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, Salesforce and Yahoo, signed the letter supporting the Republican bill.
Instead, Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of this association, wrote an op-ed published on TechCrunch that cited the Lofgren, Smith bills evenhandedly, as well as a Senate bill similar to Lofgren’s that was introduced by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). It concluded by broadly appealing for some type of bipartisan action on STEM visas.
The old guard tech industry believed it could get what it wanted by aligning itself with the Republicans. They believed they had enough power to pocket lawmakers along with their smartphones.
The Republicans got what they wanted on the STEM visa issue: Democrats bad, Republicans good. And what did the tech industry get? They were used.