The agribusiness lobby has taken a leaf from its urban peers and quietly got something it's wanted for years by sneaking in a few sentences into the latest appropriations bill.
The immigrant investor program (EB-5) keeps getting renewed without a single floor vote being taken, as its lobbyists keep placing the needed language deep within must-pass appropriations bills.
Meanwhile, the government, in a small effort over the years, has run a program to provide better housing for farm workers; it was designed with the migrant crews from the south in mind. Instead of doing the right thing — demanding that growers provide decent housing for their workers — the government decided to offer subsidies to growers who built better housing for their migrants. For decades everyone understood that this was for U.S. workers.
Thanks to a rider attached to the spending bill by Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), the housing funded over the years by this program will now be thrown open to temporary foreign workers (the H-2As.) This will add yet another subsidy for agribusiness; not only do they get the H-2As for bargain prices, now some of the big firms will be able to house these workers in subsidized housing. Politico mentioned this development recently in a longer report on other matters.
Frankly, I had not paid attention to this little program — it apparently housed more than 46,000 people last year — in decades, and was saddened to learn of the new arrangement. I say this because I played a supporting role in getting the first funding for it. I was then, in 1965, the newly hired assistant to the U.S. secretary of Labor for farm labor — a position long since abolished.
I called the rural housing people in the Department of Agriculture and learned that there was a provision in the law for grants to growers for migrant housing, but also learned that no money had been voted for the program. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Agriculture, Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), had a lock on his subcommittees' decisions and was, frankly, a Dixiecrat with no interest in spending money on social programs. My allies at Agriculture said that they would like the little program to be funded, but felt they could not spend any political capital on nudging Whitten toward supporting it.
It happened that the year before I had been on the staff of the Democratic National Committee during LBJ's election campaign. In the course of that I had been helpful to one of Lady Bird Johnson's relatives who had been given the unenviable task of organizing Mississippi for LBJ — one of the few states he lost that year. I have now forgotten the guy's name but he remembered me when I called, probably in the summer of 1965, and told him that Whitten was blocking the LBJ administration's program on this small front.
He was sympathetic, knew Whitten, and said he was going to be spending most of a day with him the following week in some activity. He agreed to broach the subject with the crusty congressman.
Lady Bird's relative called back a few days later saying that Whitten had agreed, on a trial basis, to let the little program have — as I recall — $2 million. It has grown a bit since.
Sometimes decisions in the nation's capital are made in just this way.