WASHINGTON--Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Wednesday renewed his fight for "infinite" H-1B guest-worker visas and improvements in U.S. education before largely receptive senators on Capitol Hill.
In only his third appearance ever at a congressional hearing, Gates urged politicians here on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to pursue a three-pronged approach to boosting the nation's competitiveness: equipping American students, teachers and workers with necessary math and science skills; elevating research spending; and rewriting immigration laws to allow American companies to hire more foreigners.
The United States has much to be proud of in the technology realm, Gates told the politicians, but "when I reflect on the state of American competitiveness, my feeling of pride is mixed with deep anxiety."
The Microsoft chairman's message was hardly new. Gates and other high-tech leaders have been lamenting the state of the U.S. educational system and work force, particularly in the realm of math and science, for years. They argue that without dramatic policy changes, the United States will lose its competitive edge in the high-tech realm.
On education, Gates called for doubling the number of science, technology and math graduates in the United States by 2015. Doing that, he told the committee, requires more funding and a number of additional steps, including recruitment of 10,000 new science and math teachers in high schools and creation of 25,000 new undergraduate scholarships and 5,000 new graduate fellowships in the area each year.
On research, Gates implored politicians to dedicate more funding to federal research programs and to make the research and development tax credit permanent, an idea supported by President Bush. (Late last year, politicians approved a temporary extension of the much-beloved break.)
Movement is already under way in Congress to pass a law designed to spend more on federal programs in those areas. Earlier this week, a group of Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, introduced a bill, called the America Competes Act, that attempts to promote many of the educational and research goals advanced by Gates and other high-tech leaders.
Politicians indicated they're also willing to take cues from Gates as they craft new laws in the immigration area. In his testimony, Gates said there's only one way to solve what he deemed a "crisis"-level shortage of qualified scientific talent: "Open our doors to highly talented scientists and engineers who want to live, work and pay taxes here."
Gates repeated a now-familiar plea by high-tech companies for an overhaul of the H-1B visa system. Established in 1990, that program currently awards 65,000 visas to foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty and allows them to remain employed in the United States for up to six years.
Gates said there's a "terrible shortfall" in the number of visas available to high-tech companies and cautioned that the nation will "find it infinitely more difficult to maintain its technological leadership if it shuts out the very people who are most able to help us compete."
"America has always done its best when we brought the best minds to our shores," Gates said, citing German-born Albert Einstein as an example.
Several proposals were on the table last year to boost the number of visas, but none of them was ultimately approved. Congress has already approved a cushion of up to 20,000 additional visas for foreigners who receive master's degrees or higher from American schools.
When asked by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) how many visas Congress should approve, Gates repeated a suggestion he made years ago: that there should be an "infinite" number. "Even though it might not be realistic," he said, "I don't think there should be any limit."
Gregg said he "agreed 100 percent" that there shouldn't be a limit on the number of highly skilled people in the country, but he suggested Congress might not be able to do more than double the quota.
Support for bumping up the number of visas is hardly universal. Advocacy groups representing American computer programmers and scientists, such as the Programmers Guild, have fiercely resisted the idea. They argue that companies like Microsoft have not been making a good-faith effort to recruit qualified Americans and that the current structure of the H-1B program allows American companies to hire foreign workers at lower pay rates than American counterparts.
Committee politicians embraced virtually all of the suggestions made by their high-profile guest.
Referring to Gates' immigration recommendations, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "I think a lot of the points you made make very, very good sense."
In his written testimony, Kennedy said the U.S. immigration system is "broken" and that the law needs to provide for more visas for "high-skilled" workers, particularly for foreigners who earn advanced degrees in science, technology and engineering at American universities. He said he planned to write such a provision into a "comprehensive" immigration bill he plans to introduce soon.
"We all agree that Americans must be hired first," Kennedy said. "But we must also keep the doors open to those who will contribute and strengthen our land for the future."
A different tone
Gates' warm reception by the senators on Wednesday proved a stark contrast to his congressional hearing debut nearly a decade ago.
Speaking at a March 1998 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about competition in the computer industry, Gates was put on the offensive about his company amid allegations of monopolistic practices. He also endured heated questioning from then-committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Now a member of the Senate committee Gates addressed, Hatch had only kind words for Gates on Wednesday and chose to ask him no questions.
"You've done so much with your wealth that is so good for mankind that I don't think anyone should fail to recognize that," Hatch said, adding: "I usually don't lavish praise on anyone, but I think you deserve it."
Admiring tones infused the entire hearing this time around. It began promptly at 6:30 a.m. PST, when Kennedy escorted a dark-suited Gates to a red-tableclothed table, allowing at least a dozen photographers to close in and snap pictures of the duo. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) seated herself beside Gates and delivered a brief introduction in which she referred to Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as "pillars of our community."
During the hearing, most committee members began their comments by voicing admiration for Gates and the work done by his foundation. Many said they shared Gates' concerns about the state of the U.S. educational system and sought his views on how to get children more interested in the science and math fields, how to encourage tech skills at a young age, and how to draw more qualified teachers to those areas. Some even asked for his views on how to increase the number of American health professionals and whether Gates agrees with his father that the estate tax should not be repealed (he said, in so many words, that he does).
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came the closest to a clash with the Microsoft chairman. The senator expressed concern about the extent to which the information technology sector has engaged in outsourcing over the past few years, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics figures reporting that the U.S. tech sector lost 644,000 jobs between January 2001 and 2006.
"I think you would probably agree that many major corporations, including your own, if they can hire qualified labor, engineers, scientists in India or China for a fraction of the wages being paid in the U.S., they are going to go there," Sanders said.
Gates said the issue again rests on the visa-shortage conundrum. Microsoft has been increasing its U.S. employment and paying "way above the prevailing wage rate" but has run into obstacles because of immigration restrictions, he said.
"The IT industry, I guarantee you," Gates said, "will be in the U.S. to the degree that these smart people are here in the U.S."