WASHINGTON — Over the past several election cycles, political parties, pundits and activists have proclaimed governing “mandates” based on the support of only a slim majority of voters who represent just a small fraction of the actual population. The mandate hyperbole has fueled careening and brittle policy agendas that have undermined economic progress and national cohesion.
In the recent midterms, our divided country has forcefully deprived both parties of the fantasy that they can govern without compromise. The question now is whether congressional leaders can develop a pragmatic agenda to lead a divided nation.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is under no illusion that the Democrat-run House and Republican-run Senate will abandon base politics and chalk up huge victories on immigration, health care or climate change. However, there is a politically viable policy agenda that can improve the lives of millions of Americans and begin to rebuild Congress’ ability to confront the dire challenges that remain.
The path forward must not be informed by nostalgia for gentler times but guided by current incentives and recent history. The current Congress, unruly as it was, passed several meaningful bills with bipartisan support including legislation to fight opioid abuse, to revise the Dodd-Frank Act to make it easier for small businesses to get loans, and to improve care for Medicare patients with chronic conditions.
While every issue is different, these efforts share characteristics that we believe represent the sweet spot for legislative success.
First, they are “kitchen-table” issues to which most Americans can relate. Second, the topics are more comprehendible than comprehensive, focusing on key aspects of larger problems. Third, constructive partisans with credibility in their respective caucuses led the legislative efforts. Finally, each success came through a committee-led process as opposed to being forced forward by leadership without meaningful deliberation.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is working with legislators on several initiatives that meet these key criteria. The proposals appeal to the new populist momentum on both the right and the left. They offer right-size, affordable solutions that are ready-made for results-oriented lawmakers who respect the legislative process and understand how to navigate in a sharply divided Congress.
These issues include:
1. Improving infrastructure
We are recommending ways to augment government infrastructure funding with private capital to help close our nation’s $2 trillion funding gap for roads, water systems, mass transit, rural broadband and other needs.
While privatization of traditionally public works is not without controversy, many nations have figured out how to combine public and private funding that effectively and equitably shares the risks, responsibilities and benefits of modernization.
2. Strengthening accountability in higher education
The government allocates more than $100 billion a year in grants and loans to post-secondary students. Yet oversight is lax, and institutions with poor academic records and high default rates continue to receive funds. That leaves too many students burdened with high debt and low career prospects.
There is bipartisan congressional interest in better incentives and greater accountability, and the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act provides the vehicle for action. Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander and Washington Democrat Patty Murray are poised to lead the effort in the Senate. They both enjoy substantial influence in their parties and have a long history of principled collaboration and heated quarrel. Their shared commitment to a deliberative committee process greatly increases the chances of effective legislation.
3. Providing paid family leave
Public support for paid family leave cuts across all parties, regions and demographics. In solid-red Louisiana, a recent poll showed that 77 percent of Republican voters supported a federal paid family leave policy. The substantive debate has matured in recent years as six states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family leave laws, and at least half of all states are considering some paid family and medical leave legislation.
Most significantly, the Trump administration and leading members of both parties agree that enabling parents to spend time with their new children without losing their income is an idea that aligns with their substantive and political interests.
We know congressional action is often driven by deadlines, such as the debt ceiling, or by unforeseen events, such as hurricanes or wildfires. And fiscal imperatives are expected to dominate the calendar next Congress. With limited opportunities for proactive policy achievements, it is crucial for lawmakers to establish a meaningful and realistic policy agenda early in the next Congress and deliver tangible benefits to the American people.
Progress will not come easily. Voters have once again embraced contradiction, electing a Congress that is more partisan than the last while expressing a desire for members to work together and get things done. It is now up to leadership to set aside the false narratives of mandates and promote issues like those outlined above that represent the shared interests of a divided country.