John K. Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Washington is paralyzed by extreme political rhetoric that creates powerful sound bites but poor policy. The big legislative updates that we need to compete in the 21st century and to raise living standards have been blocked by a reluctance to seek common ground.
With Washington already broken, the last thing we need is a left-wing version of the tea party. But I am worried about where some of the loudest voices in the room could take the Democratic Party.
Rejecting a trade agreement with Asia, expanding entitlement programs that crowd out other priorities and a desire to relitigate the financial crisis are becoming dominant positions among Democrats. Although these subjects may make for good partisan talking points, they do not provide the building blocks for a positive and bold agenda to create jobs and improve the lives of Americans.
To create jobs, expand educational opportunities and protect the environment, I propose an agenda rooted in economic and political reality. We have to start grounding our policies in facts and recognize that a strong economy is critical for funding progressive priorities.
First, we should rebuild the United States through a national job-creating infrastructure program that would allow us to invest in transportation, expand our ports and create a new electric grid. Our infrastructure, once the envy of the world, is crumbling before our eyes, hurting Democratic and Republican districts alike. Both parties want to do something about it, but we need a realistic way to pay for it. The answer is bipartisan tax reform that would free up the trillions of dollars of trapped overseas cash and allocate it to investments in the United States. Smart infrastructure investment can create jobs now and into the future, raise overall living standards and improve U.S. competitiveness.
Second, we should create ways for the next generation to access education, which is the ultimate equalizer. The solution is to ask high-income Americans to help pay for it, which I believe they would be happy to do if they knew that 100 percent of the new money would be targeted at proven educational strategies with high levels of accountability. A new focus on universal pre-K and more affordable higher education at results-driven institutions are especially important.
Third, we should take the lead on confronting the existential risk posed by climate change, which, at a minimum, is a clear threat to U.S. prosperity. It’s a big problem that demands an innovative answer. What’s needed is a market-based solution tied to broad tax reform. The free-market U.S. system is uniquely suited to tackle climate change, and we should let it do its work by taxing something we want to discourage — pollution — while reducing taxes on what we want to encourage — businesses that are growing, investing and creating jobs. By leveraging market forces in the service of the planet, we could position the United States to become a global leader in the new energy economy.
Additionally, we need a philosophical shift in the Democratic Party, a new willingness to support programs that create pathways for nongovernmental and philanthropic innovation and investment to help solve the problems of society. We should embrace approaches, such as social impact bonds, that combine private-sector capital and expertise with public-interest goals to produce better government services. Such changes will require Democrats to leave our ideological comfort zone and move away from the idea that government, and government alone, is the answer to our problems.
But instead of being used to voice an agenda that can bring the country together, the party microphone has been hijacked by people more interested in scoring points than in solving problems. They propose expanding Social Security rather than prioritizing serious efforts to preserve the program — even though it will be unable to provide full benefits as soon as 2032, the Congressional Budget Office has made clear. The only way a large-scale expansion could work is by allocating new revenue away from needed investments in the next generation or by shifting the financial burden to workers or our children.
Likewise, as if the global economy will wait for us, protectionists demonize President Obama’s unfinished Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. A fair trade deal is a crucial step in bolstering the U.S. manufacturing renaissance, boosting U.S. exports and growing our economy. If done right — something much more likely to happen if the negotiations are directed by this sitting Democratic president — the agreement could create middle-class jobs and allow the United States to set the rules in Asia. Unfortunately, Democratic recalcitrance is increasing the chance that the deal could be done instead by a Republican president.
Lastly, some in our party continue to engage in time-consuming rhetoric attacking banks that has little chance of producing more financial reform and distracts from far more consequential areas of economic risk, such as climate change, chronic underinvestment in the next generation and our broken immigration and housing finance systems.
As Democrats, we should bring forward big ideas to restore broad-based opportunity for all Americans. As progressives, we value fairness, justice and opportunity. Our values tell us to care more about people than institutions and to judge success not by the performance of the most fortunate but by the whole of society. We risk losing ground on these values unless we have the courage to be honest about the facts and the determination to lead with good policy.
Read more on this issue:
Dana Milbank: The populists capture the Democratic Party
Dana Milbank: Democrats hand Obama a stinging defeat on trade deal
Katrina vanden Heuvel: A progressive’s lament about the Trans-Pacific Partnership
The Post’s View: Middle-class income stagnation is a threat to the nation’s health
Harold Meyerson: The right economic message can get the Democrats back on track
Charles Lane: Charles Schumer’s prescription for the Democratic Party