A narrow path for ‘common ground’

Updated
Every Saturday morning, President Obama delivers a weekly address, which is immediately followed by a Republican response, but this week’s GOP address was a little different: it was delivered by four Republicans instead of one. The message: there may be some room for a little “bipartisan common ground.”
Republicans urged President Obama to find “bipartisan common ground” on policy areas highlighted in his State of the Union address.
 
In Saturday’s GOP address, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said the House has introduced bills in four areas that should be ripe for bipartisan support: Bolstering federal research funding, giving workers comp time in lieu of overtime pay, consolidating job training programs and easing natural gas pipeline permitting.
Before getting into the particulars, it’s striking to realize just how small the “common ground” is. There are all kinds of popular ideas that enjoy broad public support – on job creation, aid to struggling families, immigration, public safety, etc. – but none of them made the cut in the official Republican statement.
 
Instead, progress is now possible in just four areas – four narrow areas. For example, GOP lawmakers aren’t talking about increasing investments in education, but they are willing to move forward if Democrats agree to cut job-training programs through consolidation. Republicans won’t approve new federal research grants, but if Dems agree to cut spending elsewhere, these GOP officials are open to directing those savings to medical research. Republicans aren’t prepared to work on a comprehensive energy policy, but if Democrats aren’t too put off by fracking, GOP lawmakers are on board with more natural gas pipelines.
 
As far as a national agenda for federal policymaking, this is thinner than thin. That these are literally the only areas congressional Republicans are willing to highlight as areas of “bipartisan common ground” suggests the public should keep their expectations for 2014 very, very low.
 
But of particular interest is the GOP plan for “giving workers comp time in lieu of overtime pay.”
 
This last came up in May, when the idea was included in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) rebranding campaign. And as we discussed at the time, the basic idea is empowering private-sector employers to make a trade with workers – instead of giving employees overtime pay for extra work, businesses can compensate workers with some additional time off.
 
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the new Republican idea isn’t new at all – Alex Seitz-Wald noted that House GOP leaders pushed identical measures in 1996, 1997, and 2003, and it was a favorite measure of Newt Gingrich’s.
 
What are the substantive downsides? Seitz-Wald explained:
What labor advocates are more concerned about is that the bill supposedly aimed at helping working families might actually hurt them by undermining the 40-hour work week and “increasing overtime hours for those who don’t want them and cutting pay for those who do,” as Center for Economic and Policy Research economist Eileen Appelbaum wrote. The National Partnership for Women and Families said the “mis-named Working Families Flexibility Act will mean a pay cut for workers without any guaranteed flexibility or time off.” […]
 
In Cantor’s “Making Life Work” speech in February, he explained that, “In 1985, Congress passed a law that gave state and municipal employees this flexibility, but today still denies that same privilege to the entire private sector. That’s not right.” But that move was to cut costs for government, not provide workers with more freedom, Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women And Families told the AP. And government employees generally have the protection of both a union and civil service laws.
 
And as Ezra Klein noted, if the problem is that working parents don’t have enough free time with their kids, then why not give them more by guaranteeing paid vacation days to employees? The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t have a law ensuring all workers get vacations, thanks to fervent opposition from Republicans and corporate interests. “Instead, Cantor is saying that the way to solve the problem of working parents not having enough time with their kids is to give them an incentive to work more overtime,” Klein wrote.
This area of “bipartisan common ground” generated a White House veto threat last summer.
 
If House Republicans look out at the policy landscape and can think of nothing else on which they’re likely to agree with President Obama, the chances of meaningful legislative breakthroughs are remote for the foreseeable future.
 
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A narrow path for 'common ground'

Updated