by Reihan Salam

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s recent address to the American Enterprise Institute was surprisingly solid:

(a) He praises the weighted student formula (WSF), an idea Ross Douthat and I touted in National Review back in 2008. My only criticism — and this applies as much to my former self as it does to Cantor — is that the WSF is the kind of idea that should be advanced at the state and local level, as I increasingly believe that the federal government should limit its involvement in K-12 to basic research and establishing national standards for transparency and data collection.

(b) Drawing on a recent legislative proposal from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Cantor calls for more transparency in higher education:

Suppose colleges provided prospective students with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major. What if parents had access to clear and understandable breakdowns between academic studies and amenities? Armed with this knowledge, families and students could make better decisions about where to go to school, and how to budget their tuition dollars. Students would actually have a better chance of graduating within four years and getting a job.

One problem, however, is that Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) has spearheaded a ban on the creation of a federal student unit record system, the most straightforward way to achieve the kind of transparency Cantor has in mind. The federal government should be limited. But one of the things the federal government is supposed to do is regulate interstate commerce. Given that many students attend colleges and universities outside of their home state, not to mention that fact that the federal government provides the higher education sector with tens of billions in funding, it seems reasonable that the federal government would establish minimum reporting standards. Or we could have the federal government get out of the business of funding colleges and universities. Either approach would be perfectly coherent. If Cantor is serious about pushing for better data, he’ll have to take on members of his own party as well as Democrats.

(c) Cantor expresses his support for the STEM Jobs Act, which aims to make it easier for skilled workers to settle in the U.S.

(d) He calls for the consolidation of job training programs — small-bore, but important all the same.

(e) He also calls for reforming the Fair Labor Standards Act so that employers could offer employees comp-time or flex-time:

Federal laws dating back to the 1930s make it harder for parents who hold hourly jobs to balance the demands of work and home. An hourly employee cannot convert previous overtime into future comp-time or flex-time. 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.

(f) The most encouraging part of Cantor’s speech is his brief reference to the child tax credit:

In our attempt to make the tax code simpler, we must continue to demonstrate support for young parents who invest in having kids and raising a family. They are America’s most valued investors. 

In 1997, a Republican Congress created the child tax credit specifically to help ease the financial burden of families raising children. In 2001, it was expanded. Such a policy helps to limit the size of government and results in fewer Americans looking to the government for support. 

What Cantor doesn’t do, unfortunately, is call for an increase in the size of the child tax credit designed to offset the payroll taxes that are the chief tax burden on middle-income households. But recognizing that parents are investors in America’s future workforce is a decent start.

(g) He calls for streamlining Medicare and Medicaid, which good be a good thing, depending on what he has in mind. Simplifying cost-sharing in Medicare, federalizing care for the dual-eligibles under Medicaid, and giving states more autonomy are all solid ideas that would fit under his rubric.

(h) And he stands behind the federal government’s commitment to basic medical research, a discussion that would have benefited from an explicit reference to biogerontological research and the ongoing effort to delay the onset of expensive age-related diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease.

This is a really solid basis from which to move forward. But one wonders if Cantor will be able to build a consensus around these measures, particularly ideas like (b) and (e) that will involve taking on powerful constituencies.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.