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Hillary Clinton's real theory of change can work — but liberals may not like all the changes

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders's single-payer health care plan is a nonstarter in Congress. But so is the paid parental leave and tax hikes on the rich that both he and Hillary Clinton support. So are the various gun control ideas they argue about. From a distance, it can look like Sanders and Clinton are essentially squabbling over total hypotheticals, with him offering utopian schemes that can't possibly happen and her offering somewhat less utopian schemes that also can't happen.

But the fact is that there are a range of small- to medium-size initiatives a theoretical President Clinton could realistically achieve with a Republican Congress that moderate Democrats think will boost the American economy and that a Sanders administration likely wouldn't pursue.

These are the kinds of things that deserve to be highlighted more in the primary campaign, but aren't partially because Clinton doesn't talk about them — in part because they're kind of boring, but also because they're not necessarily all things liberals will like.

The boring bipartisan agenda

If Clinton wins the White House, she will, of course, spend some time fighting with congressional Republicans — largely over judicial nominations and the activities of federal regulators. But in legislative terms, there will be hardly anything to fight over. Big Democratic ideas would be simply dead on arrival. But that doesn't mean nothing can happen.

The legislative calendar, if there is one, will be composed of the laundry list of boring bipartisan ideas, often broadly supported by the business community, that enjoy support on Capitol Hill and K Street.

A very productive Clinton term could feature things like:

A Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: Not to be confused with Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, this is a proposed trade deal between the United States and the European Union that would fuse the world's two largest economies into a single market for many classes of goods and services.

Government officials from both sides are working on negotiations — no doubt with plenty of lobbyist input — and a TTIP deal, if one can be reached, would likely be a bigger deal than the TPP.

Corporate tax reform: The United States has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the world but doesn't actually collect that much corporate income tax, due to widespread avoidance and many loopholes. The longstanding dream here is to cut rates, broaden the base, and grow the economy while generating some revenue.

It's been a little difficult to bring Republicans to the table with a reasonable proposal because they hold out hope that a presidential win would allow them to enact a sweeping tax cut agenda. But if they lose a third presidential election in a row, they may be ready to make a deal.

Boost in infrastructure spending: Many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are attracted to the idea of financing a boost in infrastructure spending, letting companies bring home some cash that they have currently stashed abroad for tax avoidance purposes at a discounted tax rate.

This would be in effect a tax cut that scores as a revenue raiser, which means it could be used to finance infrastructure spending without running afoul of anti-tax pledges Republicans make. Liberals are torn because it's a bit of a giveaway to business, and there's some conservative resistance from politicians who fear doing it could undermine support for bigger tax reform.

But if tax reform is happening, adding in an infrastructure piece could help garner more labor support.

EITC for childless men: Both Barack Obama and Paul Ryan have proposed to expand the earned income tax credit to cover men who don't live with children, but they've both proposed highly ideological, very contested ways to pay for it.

Yet there is a great big federal budget out there, and a Democratic president determined to get this done could either find an offsetting cut somewhere in there or else perhaps get Republicans to agree to not "pay for" it by making policy concessions elsewhere, perhaps on the regulatory front.

The Grand Bargain: This is the big one, and of course you should never count on it happening. But recall that back in 2011, the Obama administration and John Boehner were close to reaching an agreement on a deal that would cut Medicare and Social Security spending while raising taxes on high-income households.

It fell apart, but mainstream Democratic economic policy aides still think it's a good idea and John Boehner says its collapse is his greatest regret. What's more, in 2017 — unlike in 2011 — there will be a plausible argument that the deficit is actually a problem that's worth addressing. Borrowing as a share of GDP will likely be rising then, not falling, and interest rates should be above zero with the unemployment rate below 5 percent.

Skilled immigration changes: The basic trade of various doomed comprehensive immigration reform bills was stepped-up enforcement in exchange for lenient treatment of the existing population of unauthorized immigrants.

But lurking in the mix has always been a third element — business-friendly moves to allow more immigrants or guest workers with advanced technical skills to enter the country. When the dust clears on litigation surrounding Obama's deferred action orders, the stage could be set for a bipartisan compromise that simply focused on this high-skill piece.

Immigration activists wouldn't be happy, but with the GOP more hostile to comprehensive reform than ever, the White House could plausibly argue they weren't giving up anything real.

Remember: Congress is working again

Most of the commentary on the 2016 election has taken as its premise the idea that the root-and-branch GOP obstructionism that characterized Obama's first six years in office will be present at the beginning of a Clinton administration. That certainly could be the case, but it's worth recalling that, quietly, Congress started working again in 2015.

The key to the productive 2015 was that with Obama a lame duck, Republicans had no special incentive to try to make him look like a failure. They weren't going to vote for bills they disliked, and have in fact continued to make it extremely difficult for him to get executive branch or judicial nominees confirmed.

But where a deal could be struck that both sides preferred to the status quo, they struck the deal — a sharp contrast to an earlier approach where the top Republican priority was to avoid putting a patina of bipartisanship and success on the Obama administration.

Can Congress keep working under a new Democratic president?

The crucial question for 2017 is whether the old spirit of obstructionism will return, or the newer atmosphere of compromise will continue.

Only a very reckless person would hazard a firm prediction on this regard, but there are at least a few factors militating in favor of cooperation. The most important one would be, simply, that if the GOP loses three presidential elections in a row, there will probably be some appetite for doing something different.

A secondary consideration is that Paul Ryan seems to have a more secure position than Boehner did, lacking any meaningful rivals inside the caucus for leadership. This means that if he wants to cut deals he probably can.

Last but by no means least, if Clinton wins the nomination and the presidency, she will have done so without raising serious hopes of passing major left-wing legislation, which will likely give her more room to cut deals than Obama ever had.

Nothing is certain in life, but the odds in favor of a reasonably productive Clinton administration are decently high — it just wouldn't necessarily consist of an agenda progressive activists will be especially thrilled with.

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