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Opinion: 2018 Could Be Oddly Productive

Who says Congress can’t get things done during an election year?

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, shown here in 2013, are throwing their weight behind legislation to promote evidence-based policymaking. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, shown here in 2013, are throwing their weight behind legislation to promote evidence-based policymaking. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As we enter 2018, the pundit class is already pushing the usual refrain that nothing important gets done in an election year. It is always safe to be cynical in uncertain times, and low expectations have an undeniable appeal. But history does not support the premise that legislative achievements occur only in odd years. Moreover, I challenge anyone to say that 2018 won’t be odd.

The theory of election year incapacitation harks back to a time when lawmaking had a strategic cadence. Members of Congress would focus on policy for 18 months and then shift their concern to re-election. Now, our democracy exists in a constant election cycle. New members of Congress hold fundraisers before taking the oath of office, and the tyranny of our digital society ensures that every vote, utterance and facial expression becomes campaign fodder. While this perpetual election has many grim implications, it also has served to diminish the distinction between “on” and “off” years.

The idea that 2018 will be no worse than 2017 may not be cause for immediate celebration, but there are several areas where good policy and good politics can align — given a little leadership. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray are pushing legislation to promote evidence-based policymaking. Their bill, which already passed the House, would “establish a more secure, transparent, and efficient data system” to help federal agencies better assess their programs’ effectiveness. Any credible effort to support fact-based analysis is a positive step for our democratic process.

Watch: Welcome Back, Now Hurry: Congress’ Top Priorities for January

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Meanwhile, the Senate Banking Committee is moving a bill to fine-tune some provisions of the Dodd-Frank law to ensure smaller community banks are not discouraged from lending to small businesses. If successful, this legislation would be the first significant bipartisan effort to address these issues in the decade since the financial crisis. Another win for Congress and the country would be to fully reauthorize and fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which provides health insurance for nearly 9 million children in modest-income households.

Here are four other areas ripe for progress during the first six months of 2018:

Immigration. Congress has an early chance at bipartisan success; it could enact permanent legal status for “Dreamers,” the immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children and have since become American in every way but papers. Since the administration terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, thousands of these young people have already lost work authorization and protection from deportation. Unless Congress acts very soon, these individuals — who contribute significantly to our society and economy — face the prospect of being returned to countries they wouldn’t recognize. Fortunately, there’s broad bipartisan support for a deal to provide legal status to Dreamers while also enhancing border security. Such a deal would rank among this Congress’ top achievements and be a win for the White House.

Infrastructure. Few if any of President Trump’s campaign promises drew broader support than his vow to spend $1 trillion on the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and dams, contaminated water supplies, aging electric grid and other infrastructure needs. Funding these projects won’t be easy. The president is promoting incentives to state and local governments to raise new revenues. Democrats continue to press for a reliable source of federal funding, and a mix of members are advocating for increased private sector investments. Since all these approaches are needed to address the massive infrastructure funding gap, there is a good deal on the table.

Higher Education. Congress should embrace bipartisan efforts to strengthen institutional accountability for our nation’s colleges. Currently, institutions are largely let off the hook for poor outcomes among student borrowers. Although the government can theoretically revoke federal student aid eligibility for schools with consistently high default rates, this penalty is easily evaded and rarely enforced. One bipartisan model, proposed by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Orrin Hatch, is the Student Protection and Success Act, which would make student loan repayment the focus of federal accountability, giving schools more reason to care about struggling borrowers.

Nutrition. The farm bill must be reauthorized this year. A key component of this traditionally bipartisan legislation is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps. Today, 40 million Americans, including nearly two-thirds of all Medicaid recipients, rely on SNAP to combat hunger and poor nutrition. A Bipartisan Policy Center task force, led by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and former agriculture secretaries Dan Glickman and Ann Veneman, is crafting specific recommendations to make the program focus more strongly on recipient health. The SNAP issue is certain to be a critical part of the upcoming farm bill debate.

Still unknown is the role the Trump administration will play in propelling or undermining these opportunities for legislative success. In the absence of a predictable partner in the White House, Congress would do well to rely upon the committee structure, which conveys legitimacy, rigor and resilience to the legislative process. With a little bit of leadership, public service and enlightened self-interest, 2018 might just be oddly productive.

Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Website | Twitter | Facebook

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