Mar 29, 2022
Column: Ag groups must continue to push for labor reform

By Michael Marsh, guest columnist

The cold wind that is freezing Washington, D.C., as I write this article is not dissimilar to the chilly environment we have witnessed over the past several months on the Senate side of the Capitol regarding agricultural labor reform.

Michael Marsh, National Council of Agricultural Employers CEO

The House of Representatives successfully passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA) in March 2021. Enthusiastically, my agricultural colleagues and the National Association of Agricultural Employers plowed ahead onto the Senate side of the chamber to help fashion a more employer-friendly version of FWMA to conference with the House. The goal was to successfully pass the first ag labor reform legislation in 35 years out of both chambers and onto the president’s desk.

The administration was similarly enthusiastic, as were our Senate champions. But, along the way, one of those too often seen political hurdles was tossed in our path.

The majority was intent on passing as much new legislation as they could with their razor-thin margins in both the House and the Senate, and President Biden in the Oval Office. Coronavirus relief legislation in spring 2021 had passed quickly and the notion was that additional legislation should be able to pass quickly, as well.

A massive infrastructure bill to repair bridges, tunnels, airports, roads, water treatment facilities, broadband and so much else was negotiated. Much of the spending included was long overdue and supported by most Americans.

Another piece of legislation related to the budget reconciliation process and christened the Build Back Better bill, that was not as broadly supported, was likewise developed. There were not many negotiations involved in this effort and it garnered no bipartisan support. The idea behind this bill is that, like the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, which had passed during the previous administration, budget reconciliation legislation does not require 60 votes to pass out of the Senate. A simple Senate majority can pass this type of legislation.

This is where agricultural labor reform has been bogged down.

Language was developed and inserted into the Build Back Better that would provide legal status to a large number of unauthorized residents of the United States. In addition to “Dreamers,” children brought into the country illegally when their parents had crossed the border, unauthorized agricultural workers were also included, among others.

This legislation passed the House of Representatives on a party line vote but faced a challenge in the Senate.

The Senate has different rules than the House of Representatives and, in the Senate, according to a rule named after U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia called the Byrd Rule, only items that are germane to the budget can be considered in the Senate’s reconciliation process. The determination of what is germane to the reconciliation of the budget is left to the parliamentarian of the Senate.

The proponents first effort at including these immigration proposals was rebuffed by the parliamentarian. Quickly, advocates cobbled together other language that they hoped would pass muster. This second attempt likewise failed as days of stalled efforts turned into weeks, then months.

Discouraged, but unbowed, protagonists developed new language for a third bite at the apple. The Senate parliamentarian rejected “Plan C.”

During these months, agricultural outreach to the Senate on agricultural labor reform was met with the sound of crickets. Although some suggested the silence was due to ongoing pandemic-related issues, the reality was that the Senate, and our champions therein, were distracted by this political hurdle.

Finally, glimmers of hope have again emerged, although they are slight. Agriculture has a very narrow window to advance our bill in the Senate before the election crazy season shifts into high gear. This is not going to be an easy lift, but agriculture simply cannot wait another 35 years for reform. We have to provide a massive push.

Carpe diem!

Michael Marsh is the president and CEO of the National Council of Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C. 


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