WASHINGTON--For the second year in a row, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates ventured to Capitol Hill and urged Congress to let more foreign-born engineers work in the United States and to direct larger numbers of tax dollars to research and education.
Just as he did around the same time last year before a U.S. Senate committee, Gates on Wednesday contended America's competitiveness in the global economy is "at risk." He said Congress, the administration, and the next president must commit to overhauling immigration policy and encouraging both public and private research investment.
"It makes no sense to educate people in our universities, often subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, and then insist they return home," he told the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee during a two-hour hearing.
The hearing was convened, and Gates invited, to mark the committee's 50th anniversary. The occasion alone foreshadowed an exchange of pleasantries that consumed most of the event.
For example, Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) requested advice, from one father of a 7-year-old daughter to another, about what sort of hardware and software might help her adapt to the new world. (Gates, for the record, gave a whimsical endorsement of the Internet's power to answer all those questions that his parents would have had to leave unanswered back in the day.)
And Republican Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who posed a number of questions about skills needed by engineers in the tech space, made Gates a practically unheard-of concession: "You can take any or all of those (questions) or none of them."
One notable exception to the friendly reception, however, came when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) used his five allotted minutes to grill Gates on the merits of visa cap increases. "Will it not hurt those countries and will it also not depress wages for people in our own country?" the congressman asked.
"No," the Microsoft chairman responded sharply. "These top people are going to be hired. It's just a question of where."
Rohrabacher said he's not talking about "top" students. He's concerned about the B and C American students who "fought for our country and kept it free." There's no excuse, he argued, for displacing those people with "A students from India."
An audibly irritated Gates replied that when companies like Microsoft hire top foreign engineers, they create jobs for B and C American students around them. If Microsoft weren't able to hire those top engineers in the United States, it'd be doing so in other countries and surrounding them with native B and C students, he said.
Rohrabacher argued that if companies like Microsoft simply raised wages, they'd find plenty of Americans lining up for those jobs.
"No, it's not an issue of raising wages," Gates retorted. "These jobs are very, very high paying jobs."
Earlier in his remarks, Gates said Microsoft was unable to hire one-third of the foreign-born candidates it wished to hire because of too few H-1B visas. In an attempt to show a shortage of qualified Americans to fill his company's posts, he pointed to a 2008 National Science Foundation study that found in 2005, 59 percent of all doctoral degrees and 43 percent of all higher-education degrees in engineering and science are awarded to temporary residents.
Gates also suggested the U.S. government's stance toward high-skilled foreigners is absurd in comparison with other countries. He pointed out Microsoft's decision last year to open an outpost just over the Canadian border from Washington as a sort of refuge for foreign-born employees for whom it couldn't obtain U.S. visas.
Rohrabacher's badgering isn't just talk: He has sponsored a bill that would require employers to prove they're not displacing American workers and fulfill other obligations before obtaining H-1Bs, as have two U.S. senators.
Such efforts enjoy support from groups representing American computer programmers, such as the Programmers Guild, which continue to argue that the worker shortages described by Gates and other high-tech executives in recent years are bogus.
Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of the book Outsourcing America, told CNET News.com on Wednesday that it's wrong for Gates to imply that most H-1Bs are going to the brightest foreigners with advanced degrees and earning them big bucks. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the typical H-1B holder holds a bachelor's degree and is making a median salary of $50,000. And the same NSF report referenced by Gates says less than 1 percent of H-1B recipients in computer-related professions even hold doctoral degrees, and about 44 percent hold master's degrees.
Still, politicians with a skeptical view of visa expansion appear to be largely the exception in Congress. Other members from both political parties at Wednesday's hearing suggested Gates' push for a more liberal immigration policy was right on.
Whether those long-sought changes will occur this year remains unclear. Attempts to overhaul the immigration system collapsed last year, and with them went efforts to hike the number of H-1B visas and green cards.
To be fair, Gates emphasized that changes in immigration alone aren't enough. He repeatedly called for improvements in training American teachers and students in science and technology fields at all levels, from kindergartens to universities.
Few in Congress seem to disagree with Gates' push for greater investments in research and education. Last year, the president signed a measure called the America Competes Act into law, which calls for pouring some $33.6 billion into a bevy of federal science, technology and research programs. Members of the Science Committee said they would be pressuring appropriations committees to ensure the target funding amounts are fulfilled in the final budget.
Throughout the hearing, Gates repeatedly received praise for his work through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But at least one member, Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), who represents what she called the "challenging communities" of Watts, Compton, and Long Beach, clearly wanted Gates to be even more generous. She pressed the billionaire philanthropist to commit to sponsoring more scholarships with guaranteed jobs at companies like his waiting after a university degree is obtained.
Gates said he agrees scholarships are important, but he wasn't willing to go as far as Richardson had wished.
"There's just no shortage of jobs being offered to those top students in computer science," he said. "They are highly sought after."