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Fifth Democratic Debate: What We’re Watching For

Ten candidates will prepare to take the stage once again for the fifth round of Democratic presidential debates in Atlanta, Georgia. We gathered four of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s experts for their insight into the key policy issues expected to play a central role in the debate and the campaign moving forward. For BPC’s previous debate coverage, check out the briefs from the first, second, third, and fourth Democratic debates.

Here’s what BPC experts had to say.

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Bill Hoagland, senior vice president

Broadly speaking, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently released her Medicare “pay-fors,” but before identifying them, she reduced most analysts’ estimates of what her program would cost from upwards of $30 trillion down to $20.5 trillion. How did this figure come about, one might ask? By assuming much lower administrative costs, lower underlying growth of health care costs and less generous Medicare payments to hospitals, all compared to the current system. In other words, she dismisses nearly $10 trillion in costs by making assumptions that most analysts—on both the right and left—would dispute in order to make it somewhat easier for her to identify “only” $20.5 trillion in offsets. I will be looking for her clear explanation of what most would see as a sleight of hand budget gimmick.

However, when it comes to the pay-fors, the largest is an $8.8 trillion employer tax. Economic theory and actual practice find that employer taxes end up being passed back to employees in the form of lower wages or benefits.  Warren says that not one penny will be required of the middle-class to pay for her plan. How will she defend an $8.8 trillion employer tax as not impacting middle-income workers?

Finally, I will be looking for a simple answer to the question that if all her spending proposals—nearly a 60% increase over the next decade—were actually paid for by an equal amount of taxes, how would that help reduce the current unsustainable deficit and debt path we are already on? The truthful answer, it wouldn’t.

Finally, I will be looking for a simple answer to the question that if all her spending proposals—nearly a 60% increase over the next decade—were actually paid for by an equal amount of taxes, how would that help reduce the current unsustainable deficit and debt path we are already on?
Bill Hoagland, senior vice president

Cristobal Ramón, senior immigration policy analyst

Over the last six months, we’ve seen the Democratic presidential primary field continue to introduce immigration policy proposals as this issue remains at the forefront of the national debate. As we reviewed these measures, we asked two questions: do these plans provide a comprehensive fix for our immigration system? And do they present a feasible vision for implementing these reforms?

So far, the answer seems to be no. For instance, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren have called for a moratorium on immigration deportations, a position that would likely stall in Congress as legislation or face litigation if done through executive action. And while the plans reverse the Trump administration’s enforcement measures, none of the candidates have offered a comprehensive plan for reforming our legal immigration system, especially our employment-based system for hiring foreign workers.

To be sure, President Donald Trump has used the same approach on immigration. He has supported legislative measures that lack support in Congress like cutting family-based immigration and limiting asylum protections for individuals arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. The president has also focused on immigration enforcement at the expense of working with Congress to reform the immigration system, including providing DACA recipients with a pathway to permanent legal status.

While it’s unlikely that the candidates will address these issues in one debate, we’ll see if they use tonight’s debate and future ones to address these two questions on their immigration policies and plans for reforming the system.

And while the plans reverse the Trump administration’s enforcement measures, none of the candidates have offered a comprehensive plan for reforming our legal immigration system, especially our employment-based system for hiring foreign workers.
Cristobal Ramón, senior immigration policy analyst

Michele Nellenbach, director of strategic initiatives

In the last four debates, we heard precious little conversation about climate change, the impacts it is having our planet, and what can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the real-world impacts of climate change—increasingly severe and frequent extreme weather—are already a challenge for vulnerable communities. On top of a more robust discussion of climate change, BPC hopes to hear how to better protect communities already at risk from extreme disasters and weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, flooding, and wildfires. Specifically, we’ll watch to see how the candidates’ ideas stack up against BPC’s proposed steps to build resiliency and improve recovery efforts:

Reform the National Flood Insurance Program. NFIP annually runs a deficit of $1.4 billion and, in 2017, Congress simply forgave $16 billion worth of NFIP debt—essentially adding to the overall federal debtCandidates must outline plans to expand both public and private flood insurance coverage, limit development in the most flood-prone areas, and shore up the NFIP. 

Ramp up investments in pre-disaster mitigation. After each extreme weather event, the country rallies around those affected, and understandably the focus is on how to most quickly get areas rebuilt so that people can resume their lives. However, similar attention should be devoted to pre-disaster mitigation and resilient building. This requires a long-term, sustained national discussion about how to protect vulnerable communities from extreme weather. Candidates should outline how they will promote more adaptive and resilient construction and development.

Update FEMA’s floodplain maps. To determine who is most at risk of flooding, FEMA maintains a database of maps that chart the areas susceptible to both 100-year (1% chance per year) and 500-year floods. Notably, today’s maps are not based on the best available science but rather a political compromise struck between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local politicians.  Some maps are based on 40-year old data while the maps for 3,300 communities living in floodplains are 15 years old. As of December 2016, 68% of the maps required a restudy or further assessment. When facing new and unprecedented weather events, we need to know and understand all vulnerabilities. Candidates’ platforms should include discussion of the floodplain maps and how to overcome local obstacles to their updating. 

Better budget and pay for federal disaster funding. Americans in general and policymakers specifically are not good at forward thinking. However, it is irresponsible of federal decision-makers to treat each disaster as a surprise and declare their recovery costs “emergencies.” The repeated failure of Congress to account for disaster recovery costs adds to the national debt and puts future taxpayers at risk. Candidates should discuss how to budget and fully pay for all disaster-related costs.

 On top of a more robust discussion of climate change, BPC hopes to hear how to better protect communities already at risk from extreme disasters and weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, flooding, and wildfires. 
Michele Nellenbach, director of strategic initiatives

Jacqueline Rodríguez, paid family leave policy analyst

Nearly every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate is on board with providing some form of national paid family leave program. Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Andrew Yang specifically, have outlined policy proposals as part of their platforms. Yet, paid family leave has remained relatively absent from any of the Democratic debates.

Tonight, I would like to see at least one question focus on paid family leave. More importantly, I would like candidates to discuss paid family leave not only as a women’s issue, but as a 21st century economic issue. The reality is that since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993—which provides workers with job-protected, but unpaid leave—the United States has undergone dramatic economic and societal transformations. Today, single parent and dual working households are on the rise; there’s an emergence of gig-economy workers; and soaring cost of living, student debt, stagnant wages, and unaffordable or inaccessible quality childcare make it untenable for families to balance work and family, let alone take unpaid leave. In fact, only 19% of today’s workers have access to a defined paid family leave benefit through their employer.

And while workers need increased access to paid family leave, specifically low-income workers, policies also need to be designed with small businesses in mind. Small businesses after all, are the backbone of the economy. So, hopefully tonight and moving forward, candidates discuss thoughtful policy proposals that equally consider benefits for working families and entrepreneurs.

More importantly, I would like candidates to discuss paid family leave not only as a women’s issue, but as a 21st century economic issue.
Jacqueline Rodríguez, paid family leave policy analyst
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