House Passes Farm Workforce Modernization Act!

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Amidst the chronic partisan gridlock and divisiveness in Congress, a rare moment of bipartisanship appeared late on December 11, as the House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, H.R. 5038, on a vote of 260 – 165. All but four Democrats were joined by 34 Republicans in pushing the bill across the finish line. You can see how your Representative voted here. (Please take the time to thank those who supported the bill.)

This is truly an historic achievement. The last time the House of Representatives passed a bill intended to provide agricultural labor relief was in 1986. Ronald Reagan, of course, was president.

To reflect for a moment on how we got to this point, cross-aisle conversations on a House bill began in April. Negotiations picked up in earnest in May. They continued through mid-October, when legislation was finally unveiled. AmericanHort was one of just a small handful of agricultural groups invited to the negotiating table, a testament to our long and credible involvement in the issue.

Tough compromises on both sides were necessary to get to an agreement, and AmericanHort hopes to see some points of concern addressed more fully in a Senate bill. Areas for desired improvement touch on H-2A program wages and costs, worker rights, and the visa cap associated with the new year-round H-2A worker provisions. Such amendments were never realistic in a House floor debate; an “open rule” allowing amendments would have likely led to pro-grower amendments failing, and pro-union amendments passing, making the bill worse, not better. To review what the bill does, we “unpacked” the substance of the bill in a November webinar, which is archived on the AmericanHort website.

Key to our success, we have had deeply committed champions. Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee chairwoman Zoe Lofgren had the vision to see the path to progress, and was quickly joined by fellow Californian Rep. Jimmy Panetta, who represents the agricultural powerhouse Salinas Valley. On the Republican side, Reps. Dan Newhouse (WA) and Mike Simpson (ID) stepped up to the task, and were joined by our industry’s great friend, Mario Diaz-Balart (FL), and Doug LaMalfa (CA), whose district is home to most of the strawberry nursery stock production in the state.

Though the Farm Workforce Modernization Act is very different and better for employers than what the House passed in 1986, there are some interesting parallels. Then, as now, the House was controlled by Democrats; the Senate and White House were under Republican control. Then, Rep. Sid Morrison (R-WA) was agriculture’s champion; now, it is Dan Newhouse, representing the same Congressional district. Then, Leon Panetta (D-CA), was a pivotal player. Now, it’s his son, Jimmy, representing the same district.

The rest is more speculative. Then, the House passed a legalization bill; the Senate passed Pete Wilson’s guest worker bill, and a final deal was reached in a post-election lame duck session. This time, the House has passed a broad bill including current workforce stabilization, H-2A improvements, and electronic worker verification, phased in after the other reforms are established. The Senate may take a somewhat different tack on the details. The White House is a more unpredictable wild card. Another wild card is the Supreme Court, which may act to effectively end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, creating a catalyst for legislative response that could provide an opening.

So we briefly savor an historic step forward. And, our efforts now turn to the Senate.

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