(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Republicans entered the fight over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling with a list of demands. Among the “modest” concessions they sought: approving the Keystone XL pipeline, eroding contraception coverage under Obamacare and privatizing Medicaid. Democrats, for their part, have mostly just tried to pass “clean” bills, and in the case of a continuing resolution to keep the government funded, have even accepted sequestration-level spending.
Shutting down the government—or, worse, failing to raise the debt limit and forcing the United States to default on its obligations—is the height of irresponsibility. Democrats should play offense with their own demands. Contrary to popular belief, more Democrats are in safe seats—seats they won with more than 67 percent of the vote—than Republicans, which should spur them to bold action. Even better, there are plenty of policies they can put forward to boost the economy—not just prevent lawmakers from damaging it. To help get them started:
1. A public option for health insurance. If Republicans want to make the fight about healthcare, Democrats can counter by offering Medicare for all. The Affordable Care Act ended up creating an uneven patchwork of Medicaid coverage and private, state-based options. Medicare for all ensures that everyone has access to healthcare—including those left out by red states that refuse to expand Medicaid. And it would also help control spending. Medicare’s administrative costs represent just 2 percent of its spending, compared with 14 percent in the private insurance industry. Its spending growth increased at a rate about one percentage point lower than private insurance from 1970 to 2002.
2. Universal preschool. President Obama has already put forward a plan to expand preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds. Democrats could stake out new ground by demanding free quality childcare for all kids. The benefits of access to early-childhood education are already wel-known. One study found that Chicago’s program will generate $11 for every dollar spent in economic benefits over a child’s lifetime. Another, in California, found that for every dollar spent, society stands to see a $9 return in increased earnings, and reduced crime, need for public benefits and grade repetition. Well-educated Americans help increase the labor supply, which boosts GDP. And universal preschool and childcare are a huge benefit for working parents, particularly women.
3. Raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. Democrats have been calling for a raise in the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for four years. The purchasing power of the minimum wage peaked in the 1960s; if the minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would now be over $10 an hour. Fast food strikers have gone further, demanding a raise to $15 an hour, so Democrats can start at least that high and make sure it keeps rising as costs rise. A raise would give the economy, not just workers, a much-needed boost. Research by the Chicago Fed found that raising the wage to $9 would increase household spending by $48 billion. Job losses would be unlikely, it said, but even if the possibility is taken into consideration, spending would still go up by $28 billion. Raising the wage to $10.10 an hour would lift nearly 6 million people out of poverty. Not to mention that it would help close the gender wage gap and the racial wealth gap.
4. Free public college. It may sound farfetched, but the cost isn’t as high as you think. Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal found that the government already spends $22.8 billion on tax breaks and incentives for higher education, and about $104 billion on student loans. But the cost of providing free public higher education has been estimated at about $127 billion, lining up with what the government already spends to subsidize college. Plus there is evidence that a “public option” for higher education could help control tuition costs. It would also likely expand access for many, creating a highly skilled workforce and boosting economic growth.
5. Guaranteed paid family leave, sick days and vacation. The United States is the only advanced country that doesn’t have a policy guaranteeing paid vacation time. We’re the only country in the top fifteen most competitive that doesn’t have a paid sick days policy. We’re one of three countries out of 178 that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, let alone paid paternity leave. Meanwhile, we rank fourteenth in hours worked. Democrats have been pushing for paid family leave and paid sick days, but they can wrap in paid vacation time to push for more guaranteed time off work. Paid family leave would help bring more women into the workforce, relieve the cost burden on families and close the gender wage gap. Paid sick days at the state level have been shown to spur job growth and enjoy strong business support. And taking time off makes workers more productive.
At the very least, Democrats should be resisting the Republican push to keep sequestration spending levels in a “clean” funding bill. But they can do more—and teach Republicans a thing or two about policies that would actually do a lot for the economy.
Greg Kaufmann blogs about Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders's legislative battles to provide healthcare to everyone.