WASHINGTON – The government needs to keep interest rates and taxes low as the U.S. economy heads through a “rough patch,” Bill Marriott, chief executive officer of Marriott International Inc., told an audience at the National Press Club Thursday.
The Bethesda-based company is now in its 80th year and runs 3,000 hotels in about 70 countries.
Marriott spoke the same day Congress and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke deliberated on ways to stave off an expected recession. Marriott said the federal government must address immigration and visa reform, as well as the economy.
Bernanke proposed a quick and temporary economic stimulus package before the House Budget Committee, according to the Associated Press. A priority, he told the committee, is “putting money into the hands of households and firms that would spend it in the near term.”
Also on Thursday, President Bush told congressional leaders he prefers tax rebates and tax breaks for businesses.
The economy was clearly on the minds of Press Club audience members as it was being discussed on the Hill. One of the audience’s first questions was how Marriott thought the government could prevent recession. He said no one knows the answer, but said the economy may be headed toward recession and added that immediately lowering interest rates would be the best fix.
Marriott International hasn’t felt the credit crunch stemming from the mortgage crisis yet, he said, but it may become an issue within six months as the company looks for loans for major projects.
But Marriott focused his prepared remarks largely on the need for immigration and visa reform.
Marriott said he knows the importance of securing the U.S. border after losing a hotel in New York on Sept. 11, but said restrictions have gone too far.
The U.S. lodging industry, Marriott said, will need about 300,000 more workers over the next few years to keep up with growth. And that number of workers can’t be found in the U.S.
“This country is powered really by immigrant labor,” he said.
The federal government needs to step in with practical changes and devise a system to document the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S., he said, and let them stay and work.
States are now struggling to adopt the Federal Real ID Act, which mandates certain types of federal identification be produced before a state may issue a driver’s license.
Maryland Transportation Secretary John Porcari said the state will comply even though some lawmakers say it’s too expensive and raises privacy concerns.
Congress also tried, but failed to pass immigration reform last spring.
Immigration is now a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has come out with the toughest stance, calling for suspending immigration from countries supporting terrorism, sealing the Mexican border, and forcing illegal immigrants go home before the can come back to the U.S., according to published reports.
Current visa policies, Marriott said, also keep foreign workers and travelers out of the U.S.
“It’s too tough to visit America,” he said. “Here in the U.S. we need to put out the welcome mat . . . ”
Marriott said it’s impractical to make temporary workers leave the U.S. every six months to renew their visas. And visitors who apply for visas are confused by the complicated process, especially if they are turned away the first time for paper work mistakes.
The State Department and Department of Homeland Security, Marriott said, need to coordinate to make it easier for foreigners to get in the U.S.
Despite the serious issues, Marriott managed to keep the mood light.
“I have no clue,” he responded with laughter after a guest asked how to fix health care issues.