Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden in 2011. (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Now that the Democratic Party is going to control the House in the coming session, there is no small amount of advice about how it should proceed going forward. In a newly released memo, the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) lays out an aggressive and ambitious agenda for how Democrats should legislate over the next two years.

The memo has two goals. First, the CAP policy agenda outlines a platform for Democrats to campaign on in 2020, by giving them a road map of votes they could force in the next few years so that they are on the record supporting these changes. But it also reminds voters that Donald Trump pulled a bait and switch, campaigning on a platform that he would “drain the swamp” but governing in a way that rewarded corporate interests. As Neera Tanden, CAP’s president, put it in an interview, “Is candidate Trump going to be the person who deals with the Democratic House? Or will it be President Trump from the first two years?”

Undergirding the memo is the issue of campaign finance reform. The reason is basic: The money swashing through Washington is at the heart of how the system gets corrupted, a point Elizabeth Warren made this summer, when she debuted her own ambitious plan to combat Washington and corporate corruption. It’s an issue that clearly resonates with voters — numerous candidates this past election cycle made it a central part of their platform to eschew corporate PAC donations. (And yet, as The Post reported this week, Democrats raised more than three times as much money from small-dollar donations as their Republican rivals.) “People are not wrong to be cynical or suspicious that Washington doesn’t work for people. The system in Washington has become one of legalized bribery,” said Tanden. “People are looking at a system in which the voices of donors and special interests are louder than their own.”

The CAP plan takes aim at lobbying, demanding that lobbyists choose between raising money or influencing policy, but not both. They should not be able to organize fundraisers designed to raise money for politicians, or raising money for other nonprofit organizations controlled by politicians. They would be limited to their own donations – that is, $2,700 per candidate. But perhaps even more important, members of Congress should be forbidden from accepting money from entities that do business with the committees they sit on. As the memo puts it, “if a member sits on the Financial Services Committee, he or she should be prohibited from receiving contributions from big banks.” This is no small matter: For example, Open Secrets pointed out this past spring that Facebook “hired 30 outside lobbyists who alone gave $148,000 last year to the Senate and House Committee members” who questioned Mark Zuckerberg when he testified about Facebook before Congress this year.

The CAP memo also outlines specific policy proposals that hark back to Trump’s own campaign. Trump ran on a platform of increased infrastructure spending. During his presidency, the administration has declared multiple times this week or that week is “Infrastructure Week,” but that’s about it. CAP says the House should pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package, one that encompasses road and bridge repair as well as spending on schools and clean energy. Trump also campaigned on a promise to get prescription drug costs for everyone under control, a task he has made little progress on. CAP calls for legislation that would control prescription drug prices by imposing penalties on companies that increase prices on drugs at a rate greater than that of overall inflation, significantly denting surging prices of everything from EpiPens to insulin.

This sort of stuff is a win-win for Democrats. It both proves the party has serious proposals in these areas voters care about, and simultaneously puts more pressure on Trump to put up or shut up. (Not that that will ever happen!)

And, finally, there are bigger Democratic goals. They include:

  • Expanded voter rights, including automatic voter registration and redistricting reform
  • A higher minimum wage (CAP says up to $15 over a seven-year period)
  • The return of Obama-era rules on overtime pay, which would have resulted in more than larger paychecks for an estimated 4.2 million people
  • The end of right-to-work laws
  • Institution-paid family leave; passage of the Childcare for Working Families Act, which would offer assistance to low- and middle-income families aid with child-care costs, limit the amount families spend on child care to 7 percent of their income, and boost the pay of child-care workers;
  • New gun-control legislation, including an assault weapons ban and universal background checks
  • Criminal-justice reform
  • New legislation to codify equal rights for the LGBTQ community
  • Granting “dreamers” a way to gain citizenship.

There are, of course, things that go unmentioned. There’s no reference to Social Security, even as Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) push legislation that would expand it. There’s also no reference to the burgeoning movement to tackle large corporations, or improve the environment for small business. These are not small omissions.

But the memo is a start, not least because it highlights a vital point. Most Americans believe Washington is gridlocked, but in fact the system works just fine for its intended beneficiaries: the richest and most well-connected among us. Their legislative priorities — last year’s tax reform package is Exhibit A — somehow make it through. It’s everyone else that’s left to languish. Democrats need to stop taking part in that system and show voters a path forward.

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