House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s big speech at the American Enterprise Institute has been analyzed for its tone (warm), its rhetoric (soothing) and its intent (to show that Republicans want to improve life for everyday Americans). What about its ideas? Here is an (admittedly subjective) evaluation of the policy proposals Cantor laid out. Some of them are new, many of them are familiar, and what he has left out on several big issues gives his party some room to maneuver.
1. Give low-income parents school vouchers to help them pay for private schools. Cantor presented Joseph Kelly, “a heroic Dad,” who used the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program to make sure his three children went to a school that would put them on a path to college. This is a traditional pillar of GOP education policy, but it has problems. Among them: Voucher programs are small-scale, and they are of most help to students whose parents already are heroic -- engaged, motivated and invested in their children’s success. Grade: C.
2. Let federal education money follow students to whatever school they choose. In a similar proposal last year, Mitt Romney would have required states to let low income and disadvantaged students choose any school in the state, and their federal money would follow them. The approach raises a number of thorny logistical questions and entails a federal mandate to states, usually anathema to the GOP. In addition, like vouchers, it may not benefit the students most in need -- that is those without involved parents. Grade: C.
3. Encourage or require colleges to provide information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major, and cost breakdowns between academic studies and amenities. There is no parent or prospective student who wouldn’t welcome this data, if only to go for that classics major with eyes wide open. Grade: A+.
4. Reduce tuition costs. Cantor mentioned this in the context of a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Ron Wyden and Marco Rubio. However, that proposal is about transparency, not low tuition costs. Cantor also mentioned reforming the student aid process to “give students a financial incentive to finish their studies sooner,” and encouraging “entrepreneurship in higher education, including for-profit schools.” Finishing faster is always a good idea from a cost standpoint, as long as low-income and non-traditional students have time for jobs that enable them to stay in school. For-profit colleges are a dicey proposition, under scrutiny as a result of high dropout and loan default rates, and misrepresentation in general. Grade: Incomplete.
5. Expand visa slots so foreign nationals with U.S. graduate degrees are allowed to stay in America to create their businesses and inventions here instead of somewhere else. This is a longstanding idea with broad bipartisan support, and is all but certain to be part of any immigration reform bill before Congress. Grade: A.
6. Streamline 47 different, overlapping federal job training programs. House Republicans have proposed a bill that consolidates 27 of the programs. President Obama has talked about consolidation but hasn’t made it a priority. With nine federal agencies and who knows how many congressional subcommittees involved, this is a heavy lift. But it is a sensible idea. Grade: B+.
7. Give working parents more flexibility. Cantor said state and municipal employees with hourly jobs are allowed to convert overtime into comp-time or flex-time. He said private-sector workers should be able to the same, so they can go to parent-teacher conferences without worrying about losing pay. Grade: A, as long as workers are able to choose the money or the time.
8. Simplify the tax code, make it more fair, and keep the child tax credit. “Loopholes and gimmicks benefitting those who've come to know how to work the system in Washington” are indefensible, Cantor said. “Working families should come first.” There’s broad agreement on these principles, but the details are sticky – for instance, what loopholes should be eliminated, and should increased revenue be a goal of any comprehensive reform? Grade: Incomplete.
9. Repeal the new 2.3 percent excise tax on manufacturers of medical devices. Cantor says the tax makes it harder for researchers to develop innovative devices. Obama says the cost of the tax – projected to raise $29 billion over 10 years -- will be offset by business from a pool of 30 million people newly insured under the new health law. Cantor brought up the device tax in connection with rising health costs. Regardless of what happens to it, it’s only a tiny slice of that problem. Grade: C.
10. Modernize Medicare. Cantor proposed ending “the arbitrary division” between Part A payments to hospitals and Part B payments to doctors. He also said seniors should share in savings if their doctors and hospitals control costs. Would that destabilize Medicare finances? Would streamlining and modernizing involve Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, endorsed by most of the GOP, to give seniors vouchers to buy private insurance? Grade: Incomplete.
11. Give states more flexibility on Medicaid, including the ability to offer patient-directed health coverage (health savings accounts and the like) and flexible benefit programs (consumers choose the benefits they want). These are longstanding conservative ideas that don’t sound particularly suited to a population that by definition is poor, in many cases is old or disabled, and overall is unlikely to get online to painstakingly research and compare plans, prices and treatments. Grade: D.
12. Make smarter federal investments in basic medical research. Cantor said he would redirect money currently spent on social science (including economics, psychology and demographics) to helping find cures for diseases. That’s a GOP cause and a fair point in an age of deficits. Grade: A.
13. Offer legal residency and citizenship to people illegally “brought to this country as children and who know no other home” (the DREAM Act), and include in any immigration bill border security, employment verification and a workable guest worker program. Cantor left out a pathway to citizenship for all illegal immigrants in the country, which is under discussion in the Senate and which polls show is supported by a large majority of Americans. Grade: B.