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Paying to Party | The Nation

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Paying to Party

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It's no secret that the national conventions are no longer dramatic arenas in which the parties decide their presidential nominees or, for that matter, anything else of much importance. But that doesn't mean the conventions are entirely substance-free--the real action just takes place outside the professionally produced spotlight, in VIP suites, on golf courses and at theme parties.

About the Author

David Enrich
David Enrich is a reporter in Washington, DC. He was a summer 2000 Nation intern,

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In 1992 Congress passed a law designed to increase the diversity of
television programming and to amplify traditionally underrepresented
voices.

Only months after a major victory on China trade, Big Business is again scavenging for cheap labor. This time, the high-tech industry is pressuring Congress to allow additional foreign technicians--particularly computer programmers and engineers--to work temporarily for US corporations. Congress, with the President's blessing, is poised to deliver a sweet deal to the industry, at the expense of US and foreign workers.

The 1990 Immigration Act set aside 65,000 H-1B visas each year to allow "the best and the brightest" from around the world to work in the United States for up to six years. In 1998, when the high-tech industry complained about an unbearable shortage of skilled US workers, Congress raised the annual H-1B ceiling to 115,000. The industry promised it was a one-time solution. But tech companies devoured the visas. Now their Washington lobbyists claim they are still starving for qualified workers.

Such evidence as exists, however, casts doubt on the alleged labor shortage. A recent study by the IT Workforce Data Project concluded that over the past fifty years, "there is no evidence that any serious shortages of technical professionals--engineers in the past, information technology specialists now--have ever occurred." If the industry faces a tight labor market, it's self-imposed. The industry has largely ignored its vast underrepresentation of women and minorities. Few tech firms recruit at African-American job fairs, and less than 1 percent of blacks with high-tech degrees have Silicon Valley jobs. The corporations also often shun older workers, who might require retraining or better pay.

The tech industry craves cheap labor, not skilled workers. H-1Bs, which are temporary and prohibit the holder from switching employers, fill the bill. H-1B workers cannot unionize, are likely to accept uncompetitive wages and do not receive the employment benefits that similarly skilled Americans would demand. Many companies reportedly force their foreign employees to work in factorylike conditions and routinely withhold wages and violate contracts. Foreign workers, dependent on their jobs for legal residence in the United States, are defenseless: If they complain, they risk being fired; if they quit, their employer can sue them. Their only legal remedy is a bureaucratic federal complaint process with few enforcement options. These foreign temps--indentured servants of the new economy--can either put up or go home.

Nonetheless, Bill Clinton, Congress, Al Gore and George W. Bush support raising the H-1B ceiling to approximately 200,000. Why? The computer industry alone has pumped more than $72 million into federal campaigns. Orrin Hatch and Spencer Abraham, sponsors of the Senate's leading H-1B bill, have received nearly $1 million in high-tech campaign contributions. David Dreier and Zoe Lofgren, authors of the industry-endorsed House legislation, each enjoy tens of thousands in Silicon Valley funding. Other powerful legislators have also profited handsomely from cooperating with Big Technology.

The industry is reminding its political welfare recipients that expanding the H-1B program is a top priority for the nation's tech firms. Their lobbyists are meeting one-on-one with politicians and are barraging Capitol Hill with daily "fact sheets." Chairmen of House and Senate campaign committees have received letters explicitly warning that tech companies will not support legislators who dawdle on H-1B. With control of Congress up for grabs, opposing the industry hardly seems worth the risk.

Representative Tom Davis, who chairs a GOP campaign committee and supports raising the H-1B ceiling, acknowledged, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs." Once again, powerful corporations and unprincipled politicians are preparing to take advantage of vulnerable foreign labor, while many US workers are left out in the cold.

This year, the two conventions will cost at least $85 million ($50 million for the GOP; $35 million for the Democrats), the vast majority of which comes from corporate giants like AT&T, Microsoft and General Motors. Not coincidentally, all three are entangled in costly disputes with the Feds. Almost all of the other fifty-plus major contributors--including the telecommunications, healthcare, utilities, insurance, financial services, gas and aircraft and airline industries--have clear political interests with the federal government.

Both parties have planned events where corporate donors can mingle with party bigwigs. For example, the Republican National Committee is hosting a golf tournament at a posh Philadelphia country club for top contributors and GOP leaders; two weeks later, Democratic leaders will dine with elite donors at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles.

The corporations bankrolling the conventions say that "civic pride" motivates their six- and seven-figure donations. In reality, the conventions are a unique political and public-relations opportunity for Big Business. For example, BP Amoco, which is helping to fund the Democrats' convention, has its logo plastered all over Los Angeles. Grateful convention-goers will receive phone services from SBC Communications and transportation courtesy of General Motors.

Federal law barred corporate funding of conventions until 1994, when the Federal Election Commission authorized unlimited tax-deductible contributions by donors, whose identities the parties can keep secret until months after the conventions. The result: Nobody yet knows exactly who has given how much for this year's extravaganzas. The Democrats released a list placing top donors in broad categories; the Republicans disclosed a "partial list." But neither side's list shows the specifics of how the money is spent.

Individual legislators' corporate-sponsored bashes, which are particularly popular among fat-cat donors and politicians, supplement the official $85 million tally. Legislators "are collected in one place, they are away from the daily barrage of routine business, and they are more relaxed than usual," explains a brochure for a Mardi Gras party honoring Democratic Senator John Breaux. Sound illegal? Don't worry: "Special exceptions to various ethics rules allow corporations to offer hospitality and stage events that otherwise might be prohibited or limited by state or federal codes," the brochure promises.

In that spirit, Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin is hosting a party with generous funding from telecom behemoths BellSouth, Comsat and SBC Communications. What do they expect for their $25,000 contributions? A chance to chat with Tauzin, who chairs the Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. Tauzin isn't alone. Fellow Republican Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee, will attend a Texas-style barbecue that the American Gas Association, the Edison Electric Institute, the National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute are throwing for him. The same groups are hosting a party for Representative John Dingell, the Commerce Committee's top Democrat. Sony, Disney, the Recording Industry Association of America, News Corporation and Seagram/Universal Studios are sponsoring a party for Republican Mark Foley, who chairs the GOP Task Force on Entertainment. And so on.

The national conventions used to be an integral component of American democracy. Now they're just another channel through which corporations corrupt our political life.

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