President Donald Trump brought a big dose of his economic populism to Wisconsin Tuesday, where he signed an executive order that would rein in a popular foreign worker program and encourage federal agencies to “buy American.”
Trump is on the right track. The H-1B visa program is widely used by technology companies but critics contend it’s being abused at the expense of American labor. And why shouldn’t federal agencies buy American products? They should whenever possible.
The order, by itself, may have a limited impact but the theater is perhaps as important as the actual act. Trump is keeping a campaign promise, and, after a week of flip-flops on the Export-Import Bank and China’s alleged currency manipulation, sending a message to his working class supporters in places such as Wisconsin that he hasn’t forgotten them.
That he chose Wisconsin, where he won a key victory last fall, shows that the state remains a critical player in presidential politics. Trump visited Kenosha toolmaker Snap-on Inc., which is in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district and is the hometown of White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
The H-1B visa program has its place – helping companies around the country, but particularly in Silicon Valley, fill jobs for which the supply of American workers is thin. But an H-1B review is overdue. Critics of the program claim staffing companies are undercutting American wages by using the visas to recruit foreign labor and then contracting those workers to large companies. The Associated Press reports that employers as diverse as Walt Disney World and the University of California at San Francisco have furloughed tech employees and replaced them with H-1B workers. That’s not the intent of the program and should not be allowed.
Trump’s order asks federal agencies to review the program and propose new rules to prevent fraud. The agencies also would propose changes so that the visas are only given to “most-skilled or highest-paid applicants,” an administration official told the AP. In all, about 85,000 of the visas are awarded each year; in recent years, there have been several times that many applicants.
Trump also wants to toughen up the requirement that American-made goods be used in certain federal construction projects or in highway projects that are paid for with federal grants. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will review how to close loopholes in the current rules and report back to Trump, especially on waivers to the buy-American rules in the nation’s trade deals.
Trump’s own record as a businessman is mixed on these issues. Many Trump products are produced overseas, and he has hired foreign workers at his properties including at Mar-a-Lago, his club in Palm Beach, Fla., which has become his frequent base of operations on weekends.
No matter, he’s right on the overall thrust of this executive order. After the agency review, Congress may need to act, though, to ensure that “Buy American, Hire American” actually means something.