The US Capitol is seen in Washington on March 19, 2013. The approval rating of the US Congress is at record lows. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer August 6

When does Congress become so embarrassed by its laughably low approval ratings that its leaders decide to pass laws to make our country a modestly better place? Is there a plain vanilla agenda that might pass muster across party lines?

If you thought attitudes about Congress couldn’t get any worse, consider the Washington Post/ABC News poll’s finding this week that 51 percent of Americans disapproved of their own House member. This was the first time in the 25 years the poll has been asking the question that a majority disapproved of their representative. Usually, people hate the body as a whole but like the person they elected themselves .

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

Congress in the abstract does fare much worse. The Real Clear Politics average puts approval of the institution at 12.6 percent. And Republicans are especially unpopular: the Post/ABC poll found that while 49 percent of Americans held a favorable view of the Democratic Party, only 35 percent had a favorable view of the GOP.

The conventional take is that Republicans don’t need to be concerned because their supporters vote in larger numbers in midterm elections and the big fights of 2014 are mostly on conservative turf.

But at some point, doesn’t pride kick in? Do Republicans really want to be known as a purely negative party? The GOP’s establishment was pleased that it again beat back the tea party with Sen. Pat Roberts’s victory in Tuesday’s Kansas primary. Might this not give the party a little more room to work with Democrats on something?

That’s where the plain vanilla agenda comes in. Yes, the label risks dooming the enterprise. The phrase comes from President Obama — last week, he scolded House Republicans for blocking “even basic, common-sense, plain vanilla legislation” — and many conservatives presume anything associated with Obama is toxic.

Still, it’s an instructive concept to encourage a search for policy ideas that ought not to be terribly controversial. To construct such an agenda, I sat down this week with Heather Boushey and Elisabeth Jacobs of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. We put together two lists. The as-plain-as-possible-vanilla list included proposals that already have a lot of Republican support. The ought-to-be-plain-vanilla ideas either once won GOP backing or should have appeal, given other things to which conservatives are committed.

On the first list: extending the earned-income tax credit (EITC) for single, childless people; a refundable child tax credit; and a big infrastructure bill, perhaps including an infrastructure bank.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has already endorsed the expansion of the EITC, which rewards work by boosting the incomes of those who have jobs. The child tax credit is popular in principle among Republicans. Making it refundable ensures that less well-off people who often pay Social Security taxes but not income taxes get help raising their kids.

On infrastructure, my guide is former representative Steve LaTourette, an Ohio Republican who once told me that he left Congress when he realized it couldn’t even pass transportation bills anymore. The inability of Congress to agree on rebuilding our country is a national disgrace.

And here’s the ought-to-be-plain­vanilla list: a minimum-wage increase (many Republicans used to vote for it); pre-kindergarten expansion (many of the most ambitious pre-K programs are in Republican-led states such as Oklahoma and Georgia); paid family leave (financed as an insurance program so employers don’t carry the whole load); and the right not to be fired just for requesting a flexible work schedule.

It shows how hard it is to get to even plain vanilla when you consider that some conservative researchers have questioned the long-term value of pre-K programs and that the House recently voted to extend the child tax credit to somewhat more affluent families while, unconscionably, allowing it to expire eventually for low-income families.

This means our second list has a Democratic feel to it — which is precisely what Republicans should worry about. The GOP talks a great deal about family values, but what, pray, is it willing to do to ease life for parents trying to make a living and do right by their kids at the same time? And do conservatives really think that Georgia and Oklahoma are foolish for investing in the education of the very young?

Congress will stay in the ratings dumpster as long as voters see it as not even trying to meet the country’s basic challenges. If plain vanilla doesn’t do it for you, offer another flavor. But let’s stay away from exotic ideology that clearly leads down a rocky road.

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