Back to the future? How Democrats might approach antipoverty policy – AEI – American Enterprise Institute: Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise17th November 2018
The last time the US had a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a Republican president was during the 110th Congress, at the end of the George W. Bush administration in 2007-2008. As today’s House Democrats debate whether to resist or compromise with the Trump administration and the Republican-led Senate in the next two years, it’s worth looking back a dozen or so years for clues as to how House Democrats might use their new majority status to tee up antipoverty policy for legislative action.
We should expect Democrats to argue that their preferred policies will save money in the long run relative to current law; set goals using rhetorical flair; and hold hearings, introduce bills, and refine their message to make sure they are ready to go on day one when they next retake the White House.
Congressional hearings, especially at the start of a new Congress, define important policy and political goals of the majority party. One of the first hearings in January 2007 by the new Democratic majority on the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over key antipoverty programs, made a claim that seemed too good to be true — that solving poverty was actually less expensive than permitting it to continue. Here’s how new Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) put it:
Poverty is a drag on our economy, and it causes or worsens a variety of other costly social problems. Simply accepting or even ignoring high rates of poverty is likely more expensive for our nation than any comprehensive effort to address the problem.
We can expect to hear similar claims of “savings” ahead from repairs to antipoverty and other programs. For example, in recent months leading Democrats have argued that a Medicare-for-all system, despite massive new government spending, would “save Americans money.” Similar claims may be made about other policies like combating climate change, family leave, even infrastructure legislation — that the price of current law is effectively greater than the cost of legislative action.
Democrats used another early 2007 hearing to showcase their support for a longer-term agenda of reducing poverty. The Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support held an April 2007 hearing on proposals to “set a national goal of reducing poverty by 50 percent over the next 10 years.” Originally imported from the UK, this “poverty reduction target” idea was enacted in the US in 2015, and the National Academies of Sciences are currently studying how to cut child poverty in half in 10 years. In the years ahead, Democrats could advance a number of policies — like increasing the minimum wage, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and increasing childcare spending — under this same rhetorical banner of reducing poverty in the long run to meet this target.
In the end, the 110th Congress was known more for its responses to the financial crisis than antipoverty achievements. But the thematic table-setting was important, as the 110th Congress did the legislative spade work behind the massive stimulus legislation President Obama signed in early 2009. Incoming Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously said in late 2008 that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” and from a legislative standpoint he was right — it pays to be ready for when the political winds are at your back. But it also requires a lot of work to prepare for that moment, which Democrats did throughout the 110th Congress. From arguing the merits of reforming health care for the poor to expanding Unemployment Insurance benefits for low-income families to widening the reach of food stamps and beyond, Democrats used these years to hold hearings, introduce bills, and refine their messaging to be ready for a new Democratic president to sign those policies into law. Expect Democrats to follow that same playbook in the new Congress.