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So What If It’s an Election Year

by Edward Alden
January 24, 2012

Congressional Republicans listen to President Obama address a joint session of the Congress on Capitol Hill (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters). Congressional Republicans listen to President Obama address a joint session of the Congress on Capitol Hill (Jim Young/Courtesy Reuters).

The conventional wisdom when I first came to Washington in the early 1990s was that nothing ever got done in a presidential election year. And then the sage advice became that nothing much got done in congressional election years either. And of course the last 18 months or so of an administration constitute a “lame duck” period, so nothing really happens then as well. And then President George W. Bush–announcing after his 2004 re-election that he had “earned political capital and I intend to spend it”–failed miserably in his signature effort to force reforms to Social Security the next year. So what’s left? The first 100 days?

All this is by way of saying that, election year or not, the United States cannot afford yet another year of inaction in Washington. President Obama will surely use the State of the Union speech tonight to draw a sharp contrast with the Republicans on the big issues of taxation and the government’s role in the economy. The Republican presidential candidates and GOP leaders in Congress have drawn their own rather sharp contrasts with the President on those same issues. These are, quite appropriately, the types of questions on which elections are fought.

But there is plenty of governing that can still take place, and compromises that can be made, outside of the glare of campaign year drama.

Here is my list of areas where progress should be possible:

• Immigration. After the long gridlock over comprehensive immigration reform, both Republicans and Democrats appear willing to consider incremental measures. A bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to remove national quotas on green cards and speed up family reunification got 389 votes in the House late last year before it was blocked in the Senate by Iowa’s Chuck Grassley. Similar legislation, including a bill expected to be introduced by Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR) to offer permanent residence to foreign MA and PhD grads with science, math and engineering degrees from U.S. universities, should also draw strong support.

• Infrastructure. There is a range of specific measures that could free up funds for transportation infrastructure spending. And even the more ambitious idea of creating a National Infrastructure Bank to encourage public-private partnerships, which was part of the President’s ill-fated Jobs Plan in the fall, enjoys some bipartisan support. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas has been a key Senate supporter of some versions of the bank proposal.

• Attracting foreign investment. The President plans to propose in his next budget $12 million to expand SelectUSA, the Commerce Department program for attracting foreign investment, to 35 full-time employees. This is part of a broader effort to encourage “insourcing” to create jobs in the United States. This would still be a fraction of the effort made by competitors like Canada and Germany, but a step in the right direction.

• Taxation. This one is a long shot for obvious reasons, but both the administration and congressional Republicans have shown interest in reforming U.S. corporate taxation by lowering tax rates and limiting deductions, bringing the United States more in line with its major competitors. The U.S. share of foreign direct investment has fallen sharply over the past decade, and corporate tax rates are one culprit. President Obama has talked about tax measures to encourage investment in the United States, while Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), who chairs the House Ways & Means Committee, has also proposed an overhaul. There are grounds here at least for a serious conversation.

Other ideas? This is just a suggestive list, and there are surely many other important policy initiatives on which Democrats and Republicans could find common ground without sacrificing core principles. Even as the country is consumed yet again by a lengthy national election (anyone else in favor of month-long elections, like they have in Canada and the UK?), there are many policy challenges that can and should be tackled. It takes more than 100 days once every eight years.

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