Washington should be worrying about education, infrastructure and health care

March 13, 2013

Earlier today I tweeted, "If we got education, health care and infrastructure right, a lot of our other economic problems would take care of themselves." Ted Glass spoke for many when he replied, "Is that all?"


(AP Photo/Khalil Senosi)

It's a tall order, I admit. But Washington is spending all its time right now pursuing a "grand bargain" between the two parties, and that's an even taller, and perhaps even impossible, order.

President Obama said as much in his interview with George Stephanopoulos. "Ultimately, it may be that the differences are just too wide. It may be that ideologically, if their position is, 'We can’t do any revenue,' or, 'We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,' if that’s the position, then we’re probably not gonna be able to get a deal."

The partisan differences on education and infrastructure are smaller than they are on taxes and spending. As for health care, we've actually kept costs under control in recent years, we've already passed the Affordable Care Act, and we're seeing movement among Republican governors to engage constructively with the law. All of which suggests that we're entering a more productive period of implementation, reforming the reforms and building on ongoing trends -- and we should focus on that.

And it's not as if emphasizing education, infrastructure and health care is some kind of second-best to another deficit-reduction deal. Another deficit-reduction deal is a distant second-best to improving the education system and infrastructure and bringing down health-care costs -- all of which would both reduce the budget deficit and make people's lives better.

And, for the record, I'd love to add energy legislation to this list, but first, it solves more of our environmental problems than our economic ones, and second, climate change is such a polarized issue in Congress that it's even harder to see anything getting done there than on the deficit. As for immigration, we actually are focusing on it, the process looks to be going well, and so a change of emphasis isn't needed there.

So my point isn't that education, infrastructure and health care are easy issues. But they're probably easier, or at least more productive, than endlessly debating another grand bargain, and if we did make headway on them, the benefits would be vastly more significant.

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Brad Plumer | March 13, 2013