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5 serious Republican policy ideas that should have gotten more attention in the debates

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Update: Coverage of the second Republican presidential debate.

Thursday's debates were heavy on a handful of hot-button issues, with ISIS and immigration topping the list. Predictably, Republican candidates were opposed to both. But in focusing so heavily on a few issues, the moderators left out a number of other worthy ideas that have been proposed by this year's Republican candidates for president. Here are five of them.

1) Marco Rubio wants an expanded Child Tax Credit

Raising children is expensive, and most children eventually become working, taxpaying adults, providing large benefits to society. So earlier this year Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) teamed up with Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to unveil a tax plan that provides a big tax break to parents.

Under the Rubio-Lee tax plan, parents would get a $2,500-per-child tax credit. It's nonrefundable, meaning that parents can't claim more in refund than they originally paid in taxes. But unlike most tax credits, it can be applied against payroll taxes as well as income taxes, providing a significant benefit for low-income working parents.

The plan has won praise from some conservative pundits. For example, National Review's Reihan Salam, writing in 2013 about an earlier incarnation of the plan, argued that it would "give GOP candidates a meaningful way to talk about the anxieties plaguing middle-income families, and it offers a solid foundation for other proposals designed to attack worklessness."

2) Rand Paul wants to reform the criminal justice system

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). (Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

In the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, conservatives — and even many liberals — ran tough-on-crime campaigns promising to lock up criminals and throw away the key. But with prison costs swelling and crime rates dropping, the politics of the issue are shifting. Many conservatives now see prisons as another big-government program that's grown out of control.

Leading the charge on this issue is Rand Paul, who has proposed a number of reforms to reduce the amount of time people spend in prison. Paul wants to end mandatory minimum sentences, which force judges to impose long prison sentences on prisoners for certain crimes whether or not judges think that's a good idea. Paul also wants to restore voting rights for ex-felons and wipe out records of crimes people commit as juveniles.

These positions are a reflection of Paul's libertarian roots, but he's hardly the only Republican who believes that our criminal justice system has become too harsh and bloated. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), another presidential candidate, also favors reducing mandatory minimums.

3) Several Republican candidates favor school choice

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Several candidates on the debate stage on Thursday night have promoted school voucher programs during their careers. Jeb Bush touted Florida's voucher program during the debate. Wisconsin has one of the nation's oldest school voucher programs in Milwaukee, and Scott Walker has expanded that program as governor. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are also school choice supporters.

There have been many studies trying to determine whether voucher programs improve students' education, and the results have been mixed. Some have found that voucher programs improve student performance, while a few others have found that public schools do better. Overall, the evidence finds little difference in academic performance between public and voucher schools, and there's some evidence that the increased competition created by vouchers leads to improvements in public school performance.

Choice opponents argue that if vouchers don't improve student performance, that's a reason to oppose them. But that's wrong. Vouchers tend to cost the government less, per student, than public schools. And they give low-income parents the same kind of choices in their children's educations that wealthy parents enjoy. Vouchers achieve results comparable to public schools, at lower cost and with greater autonomy for parents. That's an argument for school choice, not against it.

Unfortunately, while several Republicans have praised school choice in the abstract — Ted Cruz even touts it as a new civil rights issue — none of them have gotten into specifics about how they would promote the concept at the federal level. Most of them would probably defend Washington, DC's Opportunity Scholarship Program, which has faced concerted attack from Democrats. But we don't know if as president any of the candidates would try to promote school choice in the states, or if they would see this as an issue for states to handle.

4) Ted Cruz wants to expand high-skill immigration

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Much of the immigration debate has focused on low-skill immigration, and especially what to do with the 11 million people who have come to the United States illegally. Cruz has been as hawkish on those issues as anyone in the Republican race, but he has also supported expanding opportunities for high-skilled workers to come to the United States.

During the 2013 immigration reform debate, Cruz proposed an amendment that would expand the H-1B visa program — which provides three-year visas to high-skilled workers at American companies — from 65,000 workers per year to 325,000. The amendment was defeated, and the larger immigration bill never became law anyway.

Expanding high-skilled immigration would be an easy win for the American economy. The kind of skilled workers who get H-1B visas easily pay more in taxes than they receive in government benefits. And the ability to draw from a global workforce will strengthen American companies.

5) Rick Perry wants to avoid bailouts by boosting bank capital requirements

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Many Republican candidates' stance on financial regulation has been limited to criticizing President Obama's signature Dodd-Frank reform legislation. But former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a more specific proposal for ensuring that taxpayers don't wind up on the hook for bailouts in the future.

Perry's approach would reduce the amount of money that banks could borrow to finance risky investments. That would force banks' shareholders to have more skin the game, and it would give banks a bigger cushion before an economic downturn wiped out a firm's equity. That would reduce the risk that an economic downturn would turn into a financial meltdown.

This idea is also supported by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who has co-sponsored legislation with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) limiting how much banks can borrow.

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