The 117th Congress to be sworn in on January 3, 2021 will be closely divided and immediately challenged by a continuing pandemic; economic instability that has left millions of Americans facing joblessness, homelessness, and even hunger; simmering racial tensions; and the political and social aftershocks of a deeply divisive election. Whether our system of government can respond to America’s immediate crisis—let alone produce solutions to the complex, generation-defining problems that predate and transcend the current emergency—is the question that hangs over the nation. The elephant (and donkey) in the room is the fact that neither party in 2021 can claim a clear mandate, and each still needs the other to get anything substantive done.
In this environment, congressional leaders and the new administration face a difficult choice: whether to continue emphasizing their differences by pursuing a one-party, winner-takes-all agenda or do the harder (and braver) work of compromising to advance the nation’s interests.
For nearly 15 years, the Bipartisan Policy Center has combined ideas and interests from across the political spectrum to promote pragmatic and durable policy. Recent election results reinforce the view that engaging a diversity of views is the best and ultimately only path forward—both for expanding opportunity and prosperity and for restoring faith and trust in the still unfolding project of American-style democracy. That trust was being sorely tested long before the current pandemic by the reality that, over the last several decades all Americans have not shared equally in the fruits of a fast-changing, hard-charging economy. While income inequality narrowed slightly in recent years, it remains significantly higher than 30 years ago. Into the early part of 2020, wages were rising, especially for the lowest earners, and poverty was falling. Yet stubborn gaps persist in outcomes for Americans of different races—in education, earnings, and health. “Deaths of despair” have reduced average life expectancy for non-college educated men. Surprising numbers of Americans say they cannot cover an unexpected expense on the scale of a common car repair out of their own savings. And many Americans are pessimistic about their children’s ability to achieve a better standard of living. When COVID-19 hit, the pandemic added a new and all-too-frequently lethal dimension to these disparities
Against this backdrop, the nation faces a two-part imperative: The first is to get the pandemic under control and the economy back on its feet. The second is to address deeper sources of insecurity that not only limit opportunity and diminish quality of life for many working Americans but also feed a growing sense of polarization and disaffection that increasingly threatens the health of our body politic. This paper lays out a pragmatic, immediately actionable policy agenda that begins to tackle these short- and long-term challenges by:
- Promoting financial resilience and wealth creation.
- Supporting work and expanding opportunity.
- Helping children and families.
In the pages that follow, we articulate nine specific policy recommendations for consideration by members of the new Congress and administration, while also making the case for a larger project of rebuilding and reinvigoration that is squarely focused on America’s workers and working families. These initial policy recommendations represent just a first step, or down payment, on future progress. What these reforms have in common, however, is that they have attracted strong bipartisan support in the past and could be enacted quickly. In that sense they represent a critical opportunity—not only to deliver meaningful immediate benefits, but also to demonstrate that the two parties remain capable of coming together to produce results for the American people.
The latter point is critical because assembling the political capital needed to sustain longer-term progress requires taking concrete steps to make government work better for everyone. The economic and health hardships caused by the pandemic of 2020 have reminded Americans why capable governance matters. Action on BPC’s Working Families Agenda will show that our nation’s leaders have heard this message as well.
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