WASHINGTON – Republican lawmakers pitched an agenda focused on helping the poor and middle class Thursday that will likely serve as a platform for the November midterm elections and in the 2016 presidential race.
The legislators discussed regulatory barriers for entrepreneurs and small businesses, education reform for both K-12 and higher education, tax penalties, and other issues that affect poor and middle-class Americans.
“The bulk of the people in this country are not those who have a college or graduate degree. They’re wage earners,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said during a panel at the American Enterprise Institute on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” speech. “They’re people who are feeling that this country is not there for them.”
AEI President Arthur Brooks compared the 1,500 hours of training a cosmetology license requires in D.C. to just 135 hours to become a real estate agent, which he said is typically a second job for a wealthier two-parent household.
“That’s anti-poor, and it’s un-American, and we need a solution,” Brooks said.
Brooks highlighted the cosmetology example because opening a home salon is a job that many single mothers could turn to that would allow them to earn money while being with their children.
Cantor said that the House GOP agenda, called “An America that Works,” is aimed at helping Americans by introducing policies that will make it easier for people to “pursue the happiness that was the vision of the founders of our country.”
“There are way too many barriers right now to success,” he said. “The licensing question in particular is one that strikes at the heart of what America is about.”
Cantor said part of the problem was that the federal government continues to subsidize the training programs that rely on strict licensing requirements for a profit.
“We need to stop that. The incentives are wrong,” he said. “Hopefully, we can come down on the side of the working middle class, those individuals who do not necessarily have higher education degrees but make up the bulk of working middle-class people.”
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) noted that education is “the gateway to the American dream.” Scott said he picked up this insight as a teenager who flunked out of high school, including civics, which he joked might be the first time that has happened to a future U.S. senator.
“I always hear labels being put on poor kids: ‘at-risk kids.’ What an awful label. We are high-potential children,” he said.
Scott said the CHOICE Act, which he introduced earlier this year, would provide opportunities to children “trapped and mired in poverty.” The proposal would create pilot programs around the country for military families and expand on the success of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program, which allows parents to send their children to a school of their choice in the city.
“One of the challenges that I…and so many Americans face today is that we haven’t spent enough time figuring out how to unleash the American dream in the poorest areas of the country,” Scott said.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said the purpose of the conservative reform agenda is best summarized by the words of Abraham Lincoln who said the goal of government “is to lift the artificial weights off all shoulders…and to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”
“The greatest engines of economic mobility are themselves the twin pillars of our society, which are free market economy and voluntary institutions of civil society,” Lee said. “When those things are strong, the poor and the middle class get ahead.”
After noting that many people are aware of the so-called “marriage penalty” in the U.S. tax code, Lee said the majority of Americans are unaware of the “parent tax penalty.”
“Working parents in many cases are penalized twice by the tax code. They pay once into the system as they work and pay their taxes. They pay into the system a second time as they incur the rather substantial costs of raising their children,” he said.
Lee said his child tax credit proposal would “stop government from penalizing hard-working parents” by providing a tax credit per child to offset the parent tax penalty.
“Of all the obstacles that Americans face…some of the most insurmountable obstacles are put in place by dysfunctional government policies that are holding people back,” Lee said.
Speaking in the following panel, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promoted three pieces of legislation introduced by other Republicans that he said would fit into the conservative reform agenda: the Family Friendly Workplace Flexibility Act, the Expanding Opportunity for Charter Schools Act, and the National Right to Work Act.
“We won’t all agree on the particulars of every single proposal and we may disagree on the political wisdom of pursuing various proposals at particular times and places,” McConnell said. “But that’s OK. The idea isn’t to agree on everything, but is to have a serious debate that leads to good, durable results.”
McConnell, who seemed in a cheerful mood after winning the Republican primary in his state against Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin on Tuesday, vowed he would make the Senate work again if Republicans win majority control in the midterm elections.
“We’d work longer days and weeks using the clock to force consensus,” he said.
The Kentucky Republican criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for doing “tremendous damage” to the comity of the Senate.
“He has turned the Senate into a graveyard of ideas and serious open debate. His propensity to block amendments, even on his own side, has prevented the organic development of policy,” McConnell said. “He has muzzled the people’s representatives, and through them, the people themselves.”
McConnell also said he would not consider doing away with the 60-vote threshold for ending filibusters on bills and bringing them to a final up-or-down vote.
“The supermajority requirement in the Senate has been important to the country,” he said. “If you think back over the history of the country, I think probably the biggest service the Senate has provided to America has been the things that have not passed.”