How to get Congress moving: Six bipartisan ideas to help the economy and the middle class

If the White House and Congress are serious about getting things done, there are plenty of common ground proposals to start from.

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As a newly-elected Republican majority prepares to take control of the U.S. Senate, both President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress are promising a new era of bipartisan collaboration and actual legislative achievement.

In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Speaker of the House John Boehner and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to take up “bipartisan bills aimed at helping the economy.” In the meantime, President Obama stated his intention at a post-election press conference “to work with the new Congress to make the next two years as productive as possible.”

Cynics will say that the most likely outcome is the same paralyzing gridlock that’s now engulfed the Capitol for years. So far, this Congress has managed to pass just 185 laws – a shockingly low total in comparison to prior sessions and one that makes this Congress the least productive in history by far.

But if inaction is indeed the result, it won’t be for the lack of bipartisan ideas – both big and small. As unproductive as Congress has been, there’s still a vast, pent-up reserve of policy priorities and creative ideas that not only enjoy bipartisan support but have the potential to make a real difference in Americans’ lives.

Many of these ideas are not sweeping proposals on a grandiose scale. Instead, as Gary, Indiana Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson put it in an interview with Republic 3.0 – they’re the policy equivalent of “hitting singles and doubles.” But as she also notes, singles and doubles can get you to home plate just the same.

In addition to the big agenda items (the potential “policy home runs”) where major bipartisan action should be a goal – trade, immigration reform and corporate tax reform – here are just a few ideas for “singles” and “doubles” with proven bipartisan support that can help get both Congress and the American economy moving:

  •  Boost American manufacturing. 

In a report released earlier this year, Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons highlighted roughly a dozen proposals to support a nascent renaissance in U.S. manufacturing.

Fueled by an increase in exports, the Senators say, American manufacturers have added 554,000 jobs since 2010. Among the bipartisan bills noted by Klobuchar and Coons that would accelerate this trend are the Innovate America Act (S 1777), which would double the number of high schools focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); the AMERICA Works Act (S 453), which would encourage federal job training programs to give prior consideration to programs offering “portable,” industry-recognized credentials (see this article for more on industry credentials); and the Startup Innovation Credit Act (S 193), which would allow new manufacturers to claim the research and development credit as a credit against payroll taxes. READ MORE HERE.

  • Expand and make permanent the research and development (R&D) tax credit.

Research and development (R&D) are the seed corn of innovation. But as ITIF’s Rob Atkinson points out, the United States has fallen to 27th worldwide in the generosity of its incentives for research and development. Worse yet, the most prominent of these incentives – the R&D tax credit – expired at the end of 2013.

At the top of policymakers’ lists for the lame-duck session of Congress should be the renewal of the R&D tax credit for 2014, if not to a vote to make it permanent. Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition in the House passed the American Research and Competitiveness Act of 2014 (HR 4438),  which would have simplified, expanded and made permanent the R&D tax credit. As ITIF’s Atkinson notes, the bill is also estimated to spur up to $66 billion a year in additional economic growth and create as many as 162,000 jobs. READ MORE HERE.

  • Expand apprenticeship opportunities for “disconnected” young Americans. 

According to the nonprofit Opportunity Nation, more than 5.6 million young Americans are neither working nor in school – a tremendous loss of both current and future economic potential.

One very promising avenue for “reconnecting” these young Americans is through German-style “apprenticeship” programs, which combine work experience with schooling. In the very red state of South Carolina, for example, a state-run apprenticeship program launched in 2009 has helped place more than 10,000 apprentices with companies such as Siemens, Caterpillar and GE.

At the federal level, Congress can encourage the availability of apprenticeship opportunities, such as through the creation of a federal tax credit for apprenticeship programs, as proposed by the Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman, or by allowing Pell Grants to finance apprenticeships, as proposed by Ben Olinsky and Sarah Ayres of the Center for American Progress. READ MORE HERE.

  • Simplify small business taxes – exempt start-ups from quarterly tax filings.

Launching a small business is challenging enough without adding to it the burden of filing and paying taxes four times a year. But that’s exactly what the IRS currently demands of small business start-up owners. While the requirement makes sense for established businesses – to ensure that firms are paying their share of Medicare and Social Security taxes – it makes a lot less sense for start-ups with uncertain or little revenue.

Based in part on a proposal published in Republic 3.0, Rep. Scott Peters (CA-52) introduced legislation that would exempt small business start-ups from filing quarterly taxes for the first two years of their existence, provided their revenues are less than $1 million a year. These new businesses would instead be allowed to file a a single annual tax return.

Research by the Kauffman Foundation finds that the number of start-ups has declined steadily over the last 30 years – a bad sign for the state of American entrepreneurship. That’s why it’s all the more important to eliminate unnecessary obstacles for aspiring entrepreneurs. READ MORE HERE.

  • Renew mortgage debt tax relief for underwater homeowners. 

Even as home prices recover across the country, and the housing crisis recedes into memory, millions of American homeowners are still “underwater” – owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. In August 2014, Zillow reported that 17 percent of homeowners with mortgages – or 8.7 million homeowners – had “negative equity” at the end of the second quarter.

Many of these underwater homeowners are also in homes at the more affordable end of the housing market – meaning that the inability of underwater homeowners to move out or up means that other buyers – and first-time buyers in particular – have far less inventory to choose from.

Shortly after the housing crisis in 2007, Congress passed legislation to exempt homeowners who short-sell their homes from paying taxes on the amount of the mortgage forgiven by the bank in the course of the short sale. This tax relief has since expired, however, thereby ending an incentive for short sales and potentially encouraging more foreclosures or bankruptcies in their stead.

Bipartisan legislation introduced by Reps. Charles Rangel (NY-13) and Tom Reed (NY-23) would extend mortgage debt tax relief through 2014. As Rep. Rangel argues, continued relief would “go a long way towards helping millions of financially distressed American families” still recovering from the crisis. READ MORE HERE.

  • Save the U.S. Postal Service. 

Directly and indirectly, the U.S. Postal Service supports between seven million and eight million jobs, says Sen. Tom  Carper, a longtime champion of postal reform.

The Postal Service, however, is facing severe financial difficulties, brought on by the advent of the Internet and a steep decline in First-Class mail. Over the last seven years, the Postal Service has run a cumulative deficit of $45 billion. Together with Sen. Tom Coburn, Sen. Carper has introduced legislation to modernize the Postal Service and help cut expenses.  In particular, the legislation would reduce the Postal Service’s obligation to prepay health care costs for its retirees and give it more flexibility to experiment with its products. READ MORE HERE.

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As the 2016 presidential elections approach, the temptations of partisan warfare will no doubt prove too much to overcome. It shouldn’t mean, however, that both sides should abandon all efforts to find common ground. And even incremental progress is better than none at all.

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