At our annual policy retreat two weeks ago, House Republicans outlined the framework of our 2014 agenda, entitled “An America That Works.” While we were discussing policies that would create opportunity and reward hard work, little did we know that within a matter of days President Obama and the Democratic party would embrace the idea that it should be a goal of public policy to encourage able-bodied adults to retreat from the work force. This full-throated embrace of the aims of a European-style social-welfare state perfectly encapsulates the debate about the future of our nation.
House Republicans believe that the promise of America has always been that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can get ahead, and that as a result each generation will enjoy more liberty, opportunity, and prosperity. This is the American Dream.
But today, the liberal policies of the Obama administration threaten this dream. And rather than figuring out how to restore the American Dream and make America work again, the president and his allies are trying to convince us that what we are experiencing is just the new normal.
One in six working-age men out of work shouldn’t be the new normal; nor should stagnant wages and growing costs that squeeze middle-class families. Nor should a government-run health-care system that discourages work, raises costs, and denies the opportunity to see one’s doctor become the new normal. And neither should a K–12 education system that fails our most vulnerable children or a college system that is accessible only to the rich become the new normal.
House Republicans reject President Obama’s new normal and instead embrace the idea that we can build a policy agenda focused on bold, conservative solutions to the most pressing problems facing American families today. In short, an agenda to help build an America that works again.
While we will tackle many issues this year in Congress, we will focus on four key areas that demand our immediate attention.
Creating Jobs and Economic Growth
We all know the headlines: 6.6 percent unemployment and a labor-force-participation rate that is near its lowest level since 1977. But that is only part of the story.
The unemployment rate for the approximately 30 percent of working-age Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 3.2 percent. But most working-age Americans don’t have a college degree. Unemployment for those with only a high-school diploma is 7.1 percent. Their labor-force-participation rate is an astonishingly low 58 percent — the lowest level for the period for which we have records. And it is even worse for those without a high-school diploma.
America doesn’t work if Americans aren’t working. An America that works requires an economy where jobs of all kinds are being created: white-collar, blue-collar, part-time, full-time. Diverse jobs that reflect the diversity of our country.
Our jobs plan begins with the SKILLS Act, our proposal to reform federal job-training programs and help connect the unemployed with the jobs available in their area. It continues with regulatory relief for those sectors of our economy we are counting on to create the jobs we need: construction, energy, manufacturing, and retail. These sectors happen to be the ones most under assault by the administration’s runaway regulatory agenda. Tax policy also has a critical role to play, as does pro-growth energy policy.
Median household income is lower today than it was in 2000. Many Americans haven’t seen a raise in years. America doesn’t work if middle-class families are working more but taking home less.
To make matters worse, American families devote a larger share of their take-home pay to gasoline, health care, and utilities today than they did a decade ago. No wonder three-quarters of Americans say they are living paycheck to paycheck. This is the “middle-class squeeze.”
We will tackle both sides of this squeeze. This includes taking steps to reduce household energy and health-care costs, stopping regulations that reduce take-home pay, and updating our tax code. We will confront head-on the policies of the Obama administration that punish work, such as the 29-hour-work-week provision in Obamacare that is cutting hourly workers’ wages by as much 25 percent.
If America is going to work, we need a health-care system that works.
Under Obamacare, nearly 6 million policies have been canceled and, for many, premiums and deductibles are increasing. Small-business owners, seniors, and middle-class families are losing access to the doctors, pediatricians, and care they want because Obamacare can’t live up to the promises it made.
While repeal of Obamacare is a prerequisite, it isn’t sufficient to the challenges facing American families. We must present patient-centered reform that reduces health-care costs. This reform must also maintain access to doctors, pediatricians, and hospitals, and help those with preexisting conditions while covering more people.
We will offer a different approach that focuses on patient-centered care, while reducing costs through increased competition, improving outcomes, and expanding choices and coverage. Americans deserve a health-care system in which insurers compete for our business, keeping prices down and quality high, and allowing Americans to see the doctor of their choice.
In America, education and hard work have always been the keys to upward mobility. Fifty percent of Americans think a higher level of education is the gateway to the middle class, yet 49 percent think paying for college is realistic only for the rich. Perhaps that is because tuition and fees at a four-year school are up 42 percent in the past decade and up 48 percent at a two-year school. America doesn’t work if college is out of reach for most families.
Sadly, for too many children, a quality K–12 education is still the most pressing challenge. Last year the House passed the Student Success Act, to increase accountability and choice in K–12 education. Approximately 200 House-passed bills remain blocked in the Senate, including this important education initiative. This year, we will continue to push for more options for a high-quality education, including through charter schools.
Of course, many students will never go to college and many Americans are past their college years. They need the opportunity to learn skills for the jobs of today and tomorrow. That is why we will continue to focus on work-force-training and vocational-education programs.
Our agenda for an America that works will go beyond support for small-business owners and capital formation; our platform will address the concerns of the 90 percent of Americans who don’t own a business and are looking for a good-paying job to support their families. We will pursue policies that support them as they seek a secure job with a decent salary that enables them to support their families, pursue their dreams, and leave their children a little more than they have.
In his first inaugural address, President Reagan said: “It’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”
After the late 1970s, when everything that made America work was under threat, people were looking for a government to provide opportunity and stand beside them, not smother them and ride on their back. The same is true today.
House Republicans are prepared to deliver an America that works for everyone.
— Eric Cantor is the majority leader of the House of Representatives.