Washington is a world distorted by a magnifying glass, where minor slips morph into catastrophic falls, and a winning news cycle swells into a victory for all the ages. When overstimulation causes the jaded to speak in ever more extravagant terms, we should be careful about making mountains of molehills.
That said, the Trump administration has hit some obstacles in its early weeks. It deferred many of the president’s signature policy items (on immigration and trade, for instance) in order to focus on health-care and tax reform. Some on Capitol Hill might like this outcome, as it minimizes the more disruptive domestic-policy tendencies of the Trump White House. But there is some evidence that a prolonged legislative deadlock on Capitol Hill could harm the approval rating of both the president and the Republican Congress, and low approval ratings could in turn endanger Republicans in the 2018 midterms.
The Trump White House could confront these political difficulties if, with the help of leaders in Congress, it passed more-focused pieces of legislation that aligned both populist and conservative interests. The passage of broadly popular, non-polarizing measures could help build the goodwill that will be required to pass more-sweeping reforms. An effort of populist triangulation could lessen the risks of a political backlash in 2018 while also taking steps toward broader policy goals. Three areas immediately present themselves as ripe for this effort: infrastructure, immigration, and health care.
Rebuild America. An infrastructure package with bipartisan support would provide both political and policy benefits. A Quinnipiac poll in March found that 90 percent of Americans support increased federal spending for “roads, bridges, mass transit, and other infrastructure.” The Quinnipiac poll also showed no real partisan differences on infrastructure — 90 percent of both Democrats and Republicans want increased infrastructure spending (and 91 percent of independents do). Tax policy and health care expose large divides between the two parties and also at times within the GOP. By contrast, infrastructure spending does not highlight these ideological divisions with the same bright glare.
Many Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have expressed a desire to support an infrastructure package.
It’s much harder for them to resist calls for investments in highways, bridges, and tunnels. Moreover, many Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have expressed a desire to support an infrastructure package. The Democratic proposal on infrastructure differs somewhat from that initially favored by President Trump, but it seems that the parties can find some middle ground. Passing a significant infrastructure bill would be a sign that the Trump administration could take the lead on negotiating bipartisan legislation. A picture of Donald Trump at a signing ceremony with Schumer and Paul Ryan both grinning over his shoulder could go a long way toward establishing the image of the president as an executive deal-maker
There would be further political benefits to an infrastructure package. If properly designed, it would provide blue-collar jobs in the short term and a foundation for economic growth in the years to come. The president’s electoral prospects depend on his delivering for working-class voters, and an infrastructure bill would help him keep his campaign promises. Moreover, infrastructure seems to be an area where the president has great personal interest and, from his decades as a real-estate developer, no small experience. Action on infrastructure could also help solidify a governing vision. If the Trump White House is serious about running on a banner of Henry Clay’s “American System” 2.0, infrastructure would seem to be a key element.
Slash guest-worker programs. While the Trump administration is making significant steps to improve the enforcement of immigration laws, the legal-immigration system needs work, too. Reforming the immigration system so that it better advances opportunity and a sense of civic belonging would be a transformative achievement. But there’s no reason that major reform has to be the only legislative option.
An effort to sunset or radically reduce most guest-worker programs would be a modest policy proposal that could pave the way for further reforms. Outside corporate lobbyists and tech CEOs, guest-worker programs have little political constituency. The H-2B visa undercuts workers without college degrees, who have already seen their wages pummeled by trends in trade and automation. Meanwhile, the H-1B visa discourages corporate investment in the domestic workforce. It undermines white-collar professionals and, in distorting the market, also hinders the employment prospects of college graduates.
Rolling back guest-worker programs could unite conservatives, populists, and even some progressives. From a free-market perspective, guest-worker programs are almost impossible to justify: By importing a class of workers who do not have the full freedom to bargain for their labor, guest-worker programs subvert the free market. Moreover, they subvert it in a way that injures the economic prospects of the average worker, a fact that can push populists and the remaining pro-worker progressives to oppose those programs, too. In fragmenting the body politic into citizens and helots, guest-worker programs corrode the politics of a republic even more than they do its economics.
A targeted measure to limit guest-worker programs could win support from both sides of the aisle.
Many Democrats, especially on the leftmost edge of the political coalition, have been critical of guest-worker programs. Bernie Sanders has raged against them. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) has introduced the High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017, which would increase the minimum pay for holders of the H-1B visa in order to discourage efforts to replace Americans with guest workers. So it seems that a targeted measure to limit guest-worker programs could win support from both sides of the aisle — the same way an infrastructure bill could. Guest-worker reform could highlight tensions in the Democratic party between transnationalists, for whom increased migration should occur no matter its effects, and those who still subscribe to the pro-worker ethos of the New Deal. This kind of reform might draw attention to some tension between corporatists and populists in the Republican coalition, too, but the populists could have a far stronger political hand on this issue.
Putting new limits on guest-worker programs might add urgency to the effort to reform the legal-immigration system. Denied access to guest workers, America’s corporations might lobby with more intensity for reforms that would transfer some bloodline-based visas into skill-based ones. It might even be possible to make the curtailing of guest-worker programs a first step in the process of legal-immigration reform: For example, a legislative package could eliminate 65,000 H-1B visas and create 65,000 new skills-based visas that would be “paid for” by eliminating 65,000 chain-migration visas. (Admittedly, the increased complexity of such a package could add to its political obstacles.)
Expand health care. While Congress negotiates on broader efforts to reform the health-care system, it could also pass a smaller version of market-oriented reforms. In exchange for liberalizing health-insurance markets, Congress could continue to fund health care for low-income Americans. It could use subsidies as an incentive for reform. For instance, if Congress modified the ACA’s preexisting-conditions requirement, it could also increase subsidies to help those with preexisting conditions purchase coverage. The goal of these reforms would be to expand consumer choice and health-care coverage.
Part of the legislative effort could include funding new medical residencies to encourage U.S. medical schools to admit more doctors; limits on subsidized medical residencies act as a kind of indirect cap on the number of students who graduate from American medical schools each year. Increased funding for residencies could target poor and rural areas, which often have medical shortages. If Republicans continue to support funding so that lower-income voters can get health-care coverage, they may have enough room to cut a deal with Democrats on reforms that would expand and diversify the health-care marketplace. Market-oriented reform could eventually decrease the costs of health care (or at least slow down the growth in costs), which could in turn reduce the demand for increased government spending on health care.
Those are not the only areas where policymakers might engage in populist triangulation. A targeted tax bill is another reform that might deliver benefits to working families. But whatever route they take, Republicans should think of ways to advance, even in a modest and piecemeal fashion, policies that would deliver for the working class. That task might entail sacrificing ideological nostalgia on one hand and a burn-the-house-down adversarial approach on the other. But successful triangulation could help Republicans avoid the traps that have destroyed more than one congressional majority and injured more than one presidential legacy.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.