Democrats have major policy dilemma with new Congress

The solid majority the Democrats will have in the House brings with it an agonizing dilemma. How much should they concentrate on the misdeeds of the Trump administration? How hard should they work with Republicans to get government functioning and solving problems facing the nation?

Indeed, it is in the long run interest of Democrats to do both, even though Republicans will share the credit for anything bipartisan. There are more than enough Trump administration missteps to keep House oversight committees busy full time, but if Democrats just ferret out wrongdoing without offering a positive legislative agenda, they will alienate a public angered by gridlock and partisan rancor. For the good of their own party, not to mention the country, Democrats should work hard with Republicans to solve problems, especially economic problems, where common ground is possible and benefits to future American prosperity could be great.


Partisan warfare has eviscerated strong economic policy for most of the past decade. Our elected leaders struggle to fund routine government activities for more than a few weeks at a time, used threats to close the government or default on the debt as suicide bombs, and refused to negotiate seriously about the major challenges to our future American prosperity. They are not addressing the scary escalation of public debt, the evident ravages of climate change, stagnant productivity growth, or declining opportunities for workers to move into the middle class.

The reluctance to cooperate with Republicans is understandable. Democrats remember that in 2009, with the economy in free fall, no Republicans in the House voted for the a desperately needed fiscal stimulus. Democrats also remember that no Republicans voted for the Affordable Care Act, despite its bipartisan origins. Republicans made the Democrats take sole responsibility for the landmark health law, then demonized and sabotaged it without offering a viable alternative. Their leaders openly conspired to push Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaJulián Castro: 'Everybody knows that the President acts like a white supremacist' Ex-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joins ABC News as contributor Daily Mail: Ex-British ambassador said Trump left Iran deal to spite Obama MORE out after one term, and having failed, continued to obstruct his policies or even to hold hearings on his super qualified nominee to the Supreme Court, all before Donald Trump came gliding down the golden escalator into the political arena.

Two years of Republican control of Congress have virtually eliminated policy negotiation across party lines. Democrats had no chance to influence the tax cuts passed last year, which may be just as well, in view of its unpopularity. Given this legislative history, Democrats are sorely tempted to give Republicans a taste of their own medicine by obstructing their policies for the next two years and blaming them for the gridlock.

But wait! Continued gridlock is not good for the nation, nor is it good for the electoral chances of Democrats in 2020 and beyond. In this era of intense partisanship, party leaders obsess over turning out their base to win the next election. Blaming and demonizing the other side turns out the base more effectively than complex proposals. But partisan diehards do not decide elections. The deciders are voters less committed to a party. They swing to the other side in part because they are disgusted with policy gridlock and hope a new team can get something done.

Obama rode the swing in 2008. Many voters were disappointed in George Bush and wanted to try a  candidate who promised to get Washington working again. Trump rode the swing again in 2016. Obama had not been able to get Washington working again, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton responds to Trump tweets telling Dem lawmakers to 'go back' to their countries The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur: Here's how to choose a president MORE did not represent change, and some voters were ready to try someone who broke the mold even more completely. Many of the candidates in 2018 rode the swing by promising to “get stuff done.” In Michigan, the Democratic candidate for governor painted “fix the damn roads!” on her bus. She won and so did many other candidates who ran on similarly pragmatic messages. Getting stuff done in a divided government requires bipartisan negotiation.

Voters who want elected leaders to get stuff done will not be satisfied with bills that pass the House and die in the Senate. Such bills could help define the Democratic agenda, but they would be message bills rather than meaningful legislation. Some Democrats want to focus on winning the White House and the Senate in 2020 in hopes of imposing their agenda without having to work with Republicans, but these hopes are nothing more than illusions. Even if Democrats captured all three power centers in 2020, they could lose big two years later, as Obama and Trump did. In a modern era of what political scientist Frances Lee calls “insecure majorities,” serious policy requires building consensus across party and ideological lines. Any major legislation must have support from both major parties so that neither can demonize it in the next election.

It would make sense for Congress to start with policies that already have substantial bipartisan support. Modernizing infrastructure, lowering the price of prescription drugs, and passing moderate gun safety measures are possible. On criminal justice reform, Democrats do not need to make it better, they just need to get the first step done. Next, both chambers should tackle at least one emotionally charged issue that will test their ability to stop blaming each other, define common goals, and negotiate in good faith to find not a necessarily a grand solution but rather sensible next steps that both sides can agree are superior to more gridlock.

An obvious candidate is improving the Affordable Care Act to stabilize insurance markets and make coverage more affordable. Another area is immigration reform, which should include effective border security, a humane process for asylum applications, a path to legality for law abiding undocumented residents, including recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and new criteria for the admission of legal immigrants that balances family unification and potential economic contribution.

It is entirely possible that Democrats attempt to negotiate in good faith only to be abandoned by Republicans. But this too could prove beneficial to Democrats because they would look reasonable and Republicans intransigent, and it will certainly make them look better than never trying to negotiate at all. The much bigger risk is that President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE, who needs something to crow about before 2020, jumps at the chance to work with the Democrats and then hogs all the credit. However, this outcome is less dangerous than two more years of economic policy gridlock.

The time for action to enhance American prosperity is now, not when the economy slows down or the next recession hits. Democrats are the party with the greatest stake in getting the policymaking process working. They are the party most committed to effective government action and have the most to lose from public distrust of politics. Getting the legislative machinery functioning again is not only important for the country, it is essential to any constructive and successful Democratic agenda.

Alice Rivlin is a senior fellow in economic studies and health policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She served as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, and founding director of the Congressional Budget Office.