Right now congressional Democrats have an abysmal approval rating of 31%. Not surprisingly, however, their Republican counterparts are doing even worse, polling at only 20%. By comparison, President Obama's approval rating remains in the low 40s, suggesting that if anything, legislative Democrats are being damaged more by their institutional association with Republicans than anything else. Is there anything the congressional GOP can do to improve its image?
One suggestion: They could try doing their jobs.
During the first two years of Obama's administration, when both houses of Congress were controlled by Democrats, he had one of the most productive runs of any president in recent history, passing 383 bills addressing everything from economic stimulus, relief for the poor, and (of course) health care reform to LGBT rights, women's rights, Wall Street regulation, and consumer protection. Once Republicans won the House in 2010, however, their refusal to work with a Democratic president on any social programs has ground our legislative machinery to a screeching halt. While it's trendy to claim that both sides are equally responsible for this aversion to bipartisanship, the raw data of recent history doesn't bear out that assumption: Although George W. Bush's signature domestic measures (such as his tax cuts, education reform initiatives, and environmental regulatory revisions) usually received at least some Democratic support, Republicans have refused to work with Obama on his own major social programs (such as economic stimulus, health care reform, and Wall Street regulation). Instead the M.O. has been to vilify the president and his progressive supporters as statists placing America on a slippery slope toward socialism (one that misunderstands both the inherent fallaciousness of slippery slope theories and the history of our constitutional republic), demand complete acquiescence to radical right goals as a prerequisite to collaboration, and then blame Democrats for the failure of bipartisanship after the latter insists on having both sides meet in the middle instead of one conceding wholesale to the other.
If progress is going to be made, this has to change. It can start with the three policy proposals that President Obama has made clear are at the top of his agenda: a new budget, a farm bill, and immigration reform.
As part of the deal that reopened the government and lifted the debt ceiling earlier this week, congressional leaders from both parties are going to be required to appoint negotiators to hammer out a budget deal by mid-December. The chief challenge here will rest in the conflicting priorities of both parties.
While the national debt certainly grew in the years before Ronald Reagan's presidency, it didn't take off until Reagan's "starve the beast" agenda was put into place, one that implemented massive tax cuts for the wealthy to not only stimulate the economy (a la "trickle down" theory), but to force matching spending cuts in entitlement programs. Since those programs have only grown in subsequent years, the ongoing clash between left and right has generally revolved around the former wishing to restore tax rates to pre-Reagan levels (or something comparable thereof) and the latter wanting to downsize, if not entirely eliminate, economic programs like Medicare, Social Security, food stamps, and the like. At face value, this does not seem like a front in which compromise is possible.
While that may be true in the long term, Howard Gleckman of the Christian Science Monitor has proposed a somewhat elegant immediate solution. In his own words:
First, Congress would agree to retain the 2013 sequester spending level of $986 billion for 2014 discretionary programs. This is about $20 billion more than the scheduled $967 billion sequester level for 2014.
Second, budget negotiators would allocate this funding level to the appropriations committees. The committees would then write 2014 spending bills that fit within those levels, work out differences between the House and Senate versions, and pass a real budget. No more mindless across-the-board spending cuts.
Third, Congress would make up the $20 billion of extra agency spending with cuts in mandatory programs such as Medicare and farm subsidies. Of course, lawmakers could always cut a bit more from discretionary or a bit less from mandatory. The numbers are not as important as the process.
The issue with the farm bill is with a provision that has been linked to agricultural policy — food stamps. After the Senate passed a measure that would save $4.5 billion by closing egregious loopholes in the existing program, the House refused to move forward unless they could cut an estimated 3.8 million people from food stamps by shortening the time able-bodied adults could receive benefits and lowering the asset restrictions for eligibility, saving $39 billion in the process. Even though recent studies have found that there are still three times as many unemployed Americans as there are jobs available for them, and that more than 20 million of the nearly 48 million Americans on food stamps enrolled as a result of the 2008 economic crash, the far right remains adamant that severe SNAP cuts be implemented as a precursor to work on a farm bill.
While no concrete compromise proposals have been offered yet, the opportunity for negotiation does exist. In conjunction with ending the government shutdown, the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees met on Wednesday to discuss meeting in the middle between the two existing bills. Even more promising (seemingly, anyway), another meeting among the 41 House and Senate members responsible for shaping the final law has been tentatively slated for the end of the month. While it isn't much, a first step is better than the gridlock we've seen so far.
With immigration reform, the chief challenge rests in getting the Republican-run House to do much of anything. Earlier this year, the Senate passed a bipartisan and comprehensive immigration reform package that would provide a pathway to citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants, allocate billions of dollars to strengthen the U.S.-Mexico border, revamp the family immigration system, impose stricter enforcement and deportation measures, and require employers to use an electronic employment eligibility verification system to crack down on the hiring of illegal workers. Instead of offering substantive counter-proposals of its own, the House far right has instead bandied about myths on immigration reform (which were brilliantly debunked in an article by fellow PolicyMic pundit Paul Stern) and refused to come to the table. Of course, as Huffington Post columnist David Leopold recently pointed out, it is strongly in the Republican Party's self-interest to work with the president on this issue. From polls showing that majorities in key Republican districts support reform bills like the Senate measure and that Hispanics have a poor image of the GOP to the simple fact that, thanks to the shifting demographics of modern America, it will become increasingly difficult for Republicans to win future elections without major Latino support, there is a straightforward pragmatic logic to working with Democrats on this issue. If Republicans are to have any hope of shaking their image as a lily white organization, it can start by actually extending a hand to the Latino community ... one that is already being extended to them.
As the dust settles from the government shutdown fiasco, the proverbial ball is in the Republican Party's court. If they wish to salvage their partisan brand, they must begin by not only avoiding a repeat of their most recent mess, but realizing that the far right-wing's ideological intransigence is what got them there in the first place. This can begin by doing the job that Americans expect from their politicians - that is, working with each other in order to solve the important problems of the day. By collaborating with Obama and Congressional Democrats on the three issues recently mentioned by the president, Republicans will render an immeasurably beneficial service not only to their party, but their country.