By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates paid a visit to Capitol Hill yesterday with a familiar wish list: more money for math and science education, more funds for research and more visas for skilled foreign workers.
In his last scheduled testimony to Congress before he retires, Gates said those provisions are necessary for the United States to maintain a competitive edge in technology innovation. He said some of the most talented graduates in math, science and engineering are temporary residents and cannot get the visas they need to take jobs with U.S. companies.
"U.S. innovation has always been based in part on foreign-born scientists and researchers," Gates told the House Committee on Science and Technology. "The fact that [other countries'] smartest people have wanted to come here has been a huge advantage to us, and in a sense, we're kind of throwing that away."
The committee held the hearing to mark its 50th anniversary; it was founded after the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite was launched in 1957. Most members of the panel congratulated Gates on his achievements at Microsoft, which he founded in 1975 after dropping out of Harvard, as well as the contributions his philanthropic foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has made to educational causes.
Gates, 52, smiled throughout the two-hour hearing, sipping from a can of Diet Coke and occasionally jotting notes with a pencil. He tapped his feet underneath the table as he talked, sometimes in sync with the rhythm of his voice.
When asked about taxes, Gates jokingly pointed out that he has written checks to the federal government for billions of dollars. "I don't begrudge it at all," he said. "I'm glad you're all working hard to see it's well spent."
Much of the discussion surrounded Gates's call to raise the annual maximum of 65,000 H-1B visas, which allow employers to hire foreigners with specific skills. Last year, Gates said, Microsoft was not able to get visas for about one-third of the foreign-born people it wanted to hire.
Some lawmakers have sponsored bills to allow more visas, but others have said the H1-B program takes jobs from Americans and pushes down wages.
Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.) asked Gates if he thought there should be any limit on the number of visas issued, and facetiously asked if IQ tests should be administered to determine who is worthy of earning permanent-resident status.
After reiterating that "immigration has been a great thing for this country," Gates acknowledged some limits were probably appropriate.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told Gates he was too focused on opportunities for top students. He said the goal is not to replace "B and C students with the A students from India."
Gates replied that more jobs are created around top engineers, and the continued demand for skilled workers will keep wages from decreasing.