House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s effort to rebrand the Republican Party didn’t lack for ambition. “Making Life Work,” it was called. That’s quite a claim. Even the Obama campaign’s much-mocked “Life of Julia” only claimed that President Obama’s policies would “help one woman over her lifetime.” If the American people are looking for a political party unafraid of strong verbs, the GOP is now firmly in the lead.
So how will Cantor and the GOP make your life work? Here are the key policies Cantor mentioned:
Weighted-student averaging for federal education funding. "Under this policy," Cantor said, "the more students a school attracts, the more money that school, its administrators and teachers receive. Low-income students are weighted heavier in the funding formula as are children with disabilities, and those learning English as a second language. So, there's incentive for schools to seek the more vulnerable population, and reasons for schools to differentiate themselves and excel."
"Imagine if we were to try and move in this direction with federal funding. Allow the money we currently spend to actually follow individual children. Students, including those without a lot of money or those with special needs, would be able to access the best available school, not just the failing school they are assigned to. And their options ought to include not just public schools or private schools, but also charter schools."
This was probably the biggest idea in Cantor's speech. Weighted-student averaging is all the rage in education reform right now, and many of its most committed backers — at least at the state and local level — have a "D" after their name. California Gov. Jerry Brown, for instance, is a big proponent (you can read a debate over his proposal here), and the particular weighted-student averaging program that Cantor singled out for praise is in San Francisco (read about their experience here). But Cantor's comments were light on details, and in this, as in so much else when it comes to funding streams, the devil really is in the details. Until Cantor puts forward a more specific proposal outlining which programs are being collapsed and how the money can be used, it's hard to assess the policy.
Your English literature degree may not get you a job. "Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major," Cantor said. "Armed with this knowledge, families and students could make better decisions about where to go to school, and how to budget their tuition dollars."
The main bill in this space — which Cantor namechecked — is Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio's "Know Before You Go" Act. The two senators wrote that their legislation would "connect the information collected by states and schools and open up access directly to students and the general public. By allowing states to disseminate this data through a coordinated system, students would not only know exactly what to expect from the institution they are looking to attend but what to expect once they graduate."
Staple green cards to diplomas. "Each year our colleges and universities graduate approximately 40,000 foreign nationals with masters and PhDs, many of whom are then forced to leave the country because there are not enough visa slots in our immigration system to permit them to stay," Cantor said. "Last year, the House passed the bipartisan STEM Jobs Act which helped fix this problem. We will act again in this Congress, and we hope the Senate chooses to join us this time."
Convert past overtime to comp-time or flex-time. "If you're a working parent, you know there’s hardly ever enough time at home to be with the kids," Cantor said. "Federal laws dating back to the 1930s make it harder for parents who hold hourly jobs to balance the demands of work and home. An hourly employee cannot convert previous overtime into future comp-time or flex-time. In 1985, Congress passed a law that gave state and municipal employees this flexibility, but today still denies that same privilege to the entire private sector. That’s not right."
This was one of the odder parts of the speech. If the problem is that working parents don't have enough time home with their kids, why not give them some? The United States is the only developed country that doesn't guarantee paid vacation to employees. All it would take to change that is an act of Congress and a presidential signature. Instead, Cantor is saying that the way to solve the problem of working parents not having enough time with their kids is to give them an incentive to work more overtime. And, ironically, these comments came on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Repeal the taxes in the Affordable Care Act. "President Obama’s health-care law resulted in higher premiums and costs for families, and has made access to quality health care and innovation tougher," Cantor said. "If we want to reverse this trend, we should start by choosing to repeal the new taxes that are increasing the costs of health care and health insurance, like the medical device tax."
A few things to note here. First, of course, the Obama administration would object to that description of their law, which hasn't even gone into effect yet, and is expected to make insurance affordable for millions of families. But bracket that. It's worth noting here that Cantor, who very much supports repealing Obamacare, has climbed down a bit from that ledge, and is now focusing on repealing some of the law's taxes. That's a significant shift.
Create a unified deductible in Medicare. At least, that's the policy I think Cantor is gesturing toward here. "We can modernize Medicare so it isn’t so complicated for seniors or health-care providers and make it easier for them to get the care they need in a cost-effective manner. We should begin by ending the arbitrary division between Part A, the hospital program, and Part B, the doctor services. We can create reasonable and predictable levels of out-of-pocket expenses without forcing seniors to rely on Medigap plans." For an example of how this might work, see Sen. Tom Coburn's Senior's Choice Act.
Give states more Medicaid flexibility. One way of reading this section is that Cantor is proposing block-granting Medicaid, a policy already in the GOP budget. Another is that he's previewing a halfway measure that would give states more flexibility but without going all the way to block granting, as that's an utter nonstarter under Obama: "We can provide states more flexibility with respect to Medicaid that will allow them to provide better care for low-income families in a way that ultimately lowers costs. Options for states should include streamlining the process for determining eligibility, and allowing them to offer health coverage through patient-directed health care or flexible benefit programs. And we must make it faster and simpler for states to gain approval of federal waivers to modify their Medicaid programs."
Cut funding for social sciences — and especially political science — to boost funding for disease research. "There is an appropriate and necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research...This includes cutting unnecessary red tape in order to speed up the availability of life saving drugs and treatments and reprioritizing existing federal research spending. Funds currently spent by the government on social science – including on politics of all things – would be better spent helping find cures to diseases."
Some version of the DREAM Act. "While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws, and that’s what makes tackling the issue of immigration reform so difficult. ... A good place to start is with the kids. One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home."
Nothing in here represents a significant break with the Republican Party's policy agenda over the last few years. But then, this wasn't a speech about creating a new policy agenda. It was a speech about emphasizing new parts of the old policy agenda — in particular, the parts that are not mainly about deficit reduction.
Still, for all the thematic ambition, the policies Cantor chose to highlight are, with the possible exception of weighted-student averaging, fairly modest. Even given the fact that he wasn't breaking new policy ground, he also avoided many of the more ambitious items Republicans have proposed in recent years. If your life isn't working now, there's little in here that sufficient to trigger a turnaround.
For instance, Cantor spent a lot of time talking about the uncertainty and high cost of America's health-care system, but he didn't of endorse anything along the lines of the Coburn-Ryan Patients Choice Act, which offers a more thoroughgoing alternative to Obamacare. Judging from this speech, if what you need to make your life work is health insurance for you and your children, the Republican Party still isn't offering much but piecemeal repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
Similarly, on immigration, Cantor's message was, simply, "yes, but less." Rather than endorsing something along the lines of Senate compromise, or putting forward an alternative, he suggests starting with some version of the DREAM Act — which is, due to Obama's executive order, pretty much in effect now. If you're an undocumented immigrant who didn't come as a child, nothing in Cantor's speech will make your life work.
Eric Cantor is the majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. That's a tough job, particularly given the fractiousness of the majority he leads. It's a job that, at its base, is about finding consensus among a lot of people who don't really agree with each other, or with him.
Cantor's speech today was about pushing that consensus forward a bit, moving it beyond deficit reduction and towards an agenda that also recognizes the positive role the government can play. But it was also a speech that showed, in its substantive caution, that the Republican Party isn't ready to move very far. At least not yet.