Here are twenty things Congressional Republicans could actually accomplish

July 23, 2013

The Senate filibuster deal was a good start. It showed both sides can work together if they are threatened with the prospect of a chamber frozen in impotence. But compromise remains a dirty word among many conservatives and libertarians in Congress who would rather accomplish nothing than find a way to achieve something. They are not only wasting their own time and our money, they are standing in the way of conservative or libertarian achievements.

House Republicans have spent 15 percent of their time, that is 89 hours, and run up  $55 million voting more than 40 times to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, even though it is the law of the land, the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of repeal would be $1.3 trillion over the next nine years. So much for demanding “consistently, a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility.”

R.A. Butler, three-time acting prime minister of Britain, described politics as “the art of the possible.” Congressmen and senators who entered politics to achieve something — yet find themselves kicking their heels, because their Tea Party colleagues prefer to pass nothing to demonstrate their dislike of government in general — might take Butler’s definition to heart. There are many conservative policies that could be put into effect if they were only to pick the right ones and be prepared, as are the Gang of Eight in the Senate, to work across the aisle.

One thing Washington is not short of is well-funded and luxuriously appointed conservative think tanks manned by researchers handsomely paid by rich donors. They sometimes turn out interesting, original, and thought-provoking papers and it seems churlish if not downright rude for Republican lawmakers to ignore their labors. To save them time, and in a genuine spirit of cooperation and helpfulness, here is a far from exhaustive list of 20 measures proposed by conservative thinkers that might easily find allies among fiscally conservative Democrats or libertarian-minded liberal Democrats and thus a majority in Congress.

I agree with some parts of some of these ideas; I disagree with others. They are not my notions, nor have I tested the claims made by their advocates. I have picked them because they provide a political middle ground where compromises and deals might be made. To discover more about how these policies might be put into practice, I have linked to the respective policy papers.

1)      Start planning sharp cuts in defense spending to reduce it by $100 billion in the next ten years, which would provide a boost of $135 billion to the American economy.

2)      Revisit the crony-capitalism Farm Bill, just passed, that subsidizes big agribusiness companies like Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyler Farms, and Riceland Foods. About a third of farm subsidies go to the largest four percent of farm operators. It’s a boondoggle.

3)      Restore a version of the Voting Rights Act to head off blatant gerrymandering and voter suppression. A new Voting Rights Act would go beyond the scope of the original to make voting more universal and accessible to all eligible Americans.

4)      Privatize the Federal Aviation Administration, as Canada did in 1996, and as Britain, Austria, and Denmark have done. Estimated saving to taxpayers: $11.8 billion.

5)      Make marijuana legal. Prohibition of illegal drugs has failed and filled our prisons to the brim. It has also promoted Mexican drug cartels, causing America heightened security problems on the border. The federal government’s insistence on a ban on grass may be an overreach.

6)      Privatize Amtrak to improve services and lower operating costs. Potential saving: $950 million.

7)      Cut the prison population by concentrating law enforcement on worst offenders. Make prisons rehabilitate rather than punish. Ease harsh sentencing that doesn’t work and institutionalizes crime.

8)      Demand the Keystone XL pipeline be built, bringing jobs to Americans and making energy cheaper. Stop federal subsidies to big energy companies and stop restrictions on export and import of energy, such as the tariff on imported ethanol. Allow private enterprise to expand nuclear energy. And, while making sure fracking is safe, don’t over-regulate exploitation of this new source of free energy.

9)      Close the Maritime Administration, created in 1950 to provide domestic maritime commerce in the event of a national emergency. It’s outdated, raises consumer prices, and undermines competitiveness of American shipping and shipbuilding by subsidizing inefficient shippers.

10)  Close Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, because the government shouldn’t be in the mortgage business. This transfer from the public to private sector can be achieved without upsetting the housing market.

11)  Make it easier to start new businesses, which create more jobs than any other sector. Help to change regulations for small businesses; big businesses are already well-served on Capitol Hill.

12)  Reform Medicare so seniors do not experience a reduction in their Medicare Advantage benefits or lose their existing plan.

13)  Encourage the jobless to take online education courses that would make them more employable. Many courses are free.

14)  Relax the 1930s labor laws so employers can pay some more than the union negotiated raise. Give non-union workers a voice to promote better working conditions. (Marco Rubio (R–FL) and Representative Todd Rokita (R–IN) have already introduced the Rewarding Achievement and Incentivizing Successful Employees (RAISE) Act along these lines.)

15)  Allow more foreign investment in American industries and lift the “special legal protections” that hamper American companies investing abroad. The regulations on inward and outward investment are often over-complex and invite expensive and time-wasting litigation.

16)  Abolish the Department of Homeland Security. Its functions would be better served by separate agencies specializing in different tasks. The gigantism of the current department has not made America safer. Instead of trying to defend every potential target we should be investigating and arresting aspiring terrorists.

17)   Charge fees for more uses of national parks and federal land. Off-road vehicle use, for instance, could reap revenue to counter damage to land. Legislation governing this issue ends next year.

18)  Adopt the Oregon proposal to allow students to pay for their college education after graduation. But vary the amount repaid according to the student’s earning prospects.

19)  Extend the charter schools experiment. Too often state education is not fit for purpose. Charter schools offer a variety of means to find a better way to give every child a better chance. And allow for-profit education companies full access to charter schools and other education opportunities currently denied them.

20)  Ease restrictions to allow same-sex married couples to adopt more easily.

Some lawmakers have already set out on some of the above and haven’t got far. Their efforts have received little publicity. Instead the squeaky wheels who get all the attention are the do-nothing shut-ins who are happy to take their generous federal salaries ($174,000 a year), hire staff (up to 60 members, paid a maximum of  $168,411, who may include close friends and family), the full federal pension and health benefits (average pension $41,000 to $55,000), the free use of military aircraft, and all the other expenses they charge us for kicking their heels in Congress.

To those who proudly declare their ideology tells them to just say no, Oliver Cromwell’s words when dissolving the stagnant Long Parliament come to mind: “Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d. You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: Two men hold onto the bannister as they ascend a staircase in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 

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