Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who chose not to run for president, made “the dignity of work” his trademark. Vox reported last year: “Brown says the fundamental problem is that the American political system — through the tax code, through monetary policy, through the turn from collective bargaining — has empowered corporations over workers. Work simply isn’t as valuable as it used to be.” His agenda “takes a multi-pronged agenda to attack these structural problems: an aggressive tax package that targets corporate behavior while extending new benefits to lower-income and middle-class families, a package of family-focused policies featuring paid family leave, an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15, and, finally, provisions to make it easier for workers to unionize while simultaneously cracking down on union-busting tactics.”

That sounds similar to a lot of the bread-and-butter proposals former vice president Joe Biden advanced during the campaign (along with green infrastructure, child care, expanding the Affordable Care Act, college tuition). Fortunately, the moderate Democratic group Third Way has also been thinking about the issue and is rolling out a “new contract for work” — a recognition that technology, globalization, gig work and other factors have, just as Brown has argued, left working-class Americans behind. Third Way makes a compelling case that the economy pays people too little, fosters inequality, doesn’t account for self-employed people and makes the social safety net too hard to navigate. It has a list of proposals grouped under eight categories:

Higher pay:
A meaningful increase in the minimum wage that rises every year with inflation.
A substantial expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to make it more generous and reach more people.
Stable, secure, and affordable health care:
A cap on health care premiums, deductibles, and copays for everyone based on income.
Universal health care coverage by automatically enrolling everyone not insured in an affordable plan.
Support for working parents:
Out-of-pocket caps on the amount any family has to spend on childcare as a percentage of their income.
A bigger and refundable Child Tax Credit.
Wealth for retirement:
An employer-provided contribution to a private retirement account separate and on top of Social Security.
Support for entrepreneurs:
Equity capital for small businesses in over-looked areas to ensure that minority- and women-owned businesses can thrive.
More lending to small businesses by quadrupling the cap on SBA 7a loans, lower fees for businesses, and increase guarantee amounts.
Permanent access to unemployment insurance benefits for entrepreneurs.
Worker protections:
A minimum package of benefits for gig workers, including health care, retirement, paid leave, and disability insurance.
An easier path for employees to collectively bargain, get overtime salary, have fair scheduling protections, get paid leave, and not be constrained by noncompete agreements.
More support for formerly incarcerated individuals to access quality employment.
Access to skills throughout a career:
Access to apprenticeships for anyone that wants one with state institutes that link employers, training providers, and workers.
An expansion of unemployment insurance to include training vouchers in addition to income support for the unemployed.
More generous Pell Grants and expanded eligibility to DREAMers, incarcerated individuals, and more.
An expansion of high-quality workforce training programs that are accessible to everyone and responsive to employer hiring and skill needs.
Support during economic downturns:
An Emergency Payroll Subsidy that helps employers keep workers on the payroll during recessions.
Higher unemployment insurance benefits and a modernized registration system to make it easier for individuals to get support.

It is striking how these sorts of proposals align with many elements in Biden’s “Build Back Better.” Third Way’s Gabe Horwitz, senior vice president for the economic program and co-author of the report, tells me, “Repairing the soul of the nation will require a rewrite of the contract on work so that a job once again leads to a secure and stable life.” He argues, “These new ideas to reward work not wealth fit within Biden’s worldview and agenda, are ambitious and actionable, and are scaled to address serious structural problems in our economy.”

No one expects the worst anti-government, demagogic Republicans to go along with anything that departs from supply-side plutocratic economics, but there are more than a few Republicans who have embraced pieces of this (e.g., Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah on expansion of the child tax credit). Moreover, given that many of these moderate policies poll extremely well, the Republican survivors of 2020 may look for issues on which they can show themselves not to be knee-jerk obstructionists.

One of the early tasks for Biden and his advisers, should they win the White House and take over the Senate majority, will be to figure out whether there are a critical mass of Republicans in the Senate who are willing to work with Democrats to pass a core economic bill. If so, the Senate filibuster might be preserved for a time. (Much depends on how many seats Democrats pick up.) Alternatively, some essential items for Democrats on which there are no Republican votes can be achieved through reconciliation (needing 51 not 60 votes).

Figuring out how to achieve its economic agenda will not be easy. With a big victory, some progressives, not unreasonably, will argue they should get their entire agenda even if no Republicans go along and the filibuster gets nuked. Nevertheless, if Democrats start with things Republicans ostensibly support — the value of work, helping families — Democrats stand a good chance of assembling, at least for a time, a broad coalition. They might even end the notion that our federal government is dysfunctional.

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