Jared Bernstein: An open letter to the new House Democrats

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais | The Associated Press) Ben McAdams, back rows in the center, and other members of the freshman class of Congress pose for a photo opportunity on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018, in Washington.

To: New House Dems

From: Jared, the Good

Re: Woohoo!!!

First, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you!

If I had known you were coming, I would've baked a cake! Instead, I've written you a memo on what looks most important from my humble political-economy corner.

But before we jump in, two points. First, rest assured that I know you do not represent an ideological monolith. In this divided country, that's a feature, not a bug. I welcome your diversity in all forms.

That said, after paying close attention to many of your campaigns, I believe you are united by a desire to get things done to help a lot of people who've been left behind. As I suspect you know, this stands in stark contrast to many who've come before you in recent years whose implicit message was "Washington is broken! Send me there, and I'll make sure it stays that way!"

Second, you’ve heard a lot about gridlock and how you won’t be able to legislate anything. That may or may not be true — legislation is always possible in Washington up until the moment it isn’t. But forget about all that. I strongly urge you to use your time to craft the best policies to meet the many deep challenges we face.

The rest of this note is intended to provide a brief glimpse of the lay of the land in those areas.

There's a reason the strong macroeconomy didn't help Republicans in the midterms.

Strong GDP growth and low unemployment are, of course, welcomed, but they don’t provide health care. They don’t guarantee decent employment opportunities in places hurt by global competition. They don’t even guarantee real wage gains commensurate with overall growth, and, thanks to the Republicans' tax cut — which broke the linkage between strong growth and tax revenue — they don’t lower deficits that should be falling now instead of rising.

So, my first point is that growth is necessary but not sufficient to uplift Americans' living standards. Republicans have long argued otherwise; the growth itself would trickle down to average folks. If that were even the slightest bit true, we wouldn't be having this conversation. In fact, what's missing is the policy agenda that creates the connective tissue, linking growth to the incomes and opportunities of middle- and lower-income households.

Sticking with health care, the extent to which Republicans pretended to be the defenders of preexisting coverage suggests we've won that part of the argument. Yet one thing that's clear in today's non-representative politics is that you can win a policy argument and lose the policy. Republicans are actively pursuing a legal strategy to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and I urge you to pay close attention to the Trump administration's sabotage efforts, including skimpy coverage that exempts people from key consumer protections, along with attempts to destabilize the individual insurance market.

As far as folks who've been left behind even as the economy closes in on full employment, a reconnection agenda should include wage and employment policies. Some of your new colleagues have plans to raise the minimum wage, increase pro-work wage subsidies, and subsidize employment in places still not reached by the current expansion. Again, the Senate is unlikely to support these ideas, but the more the people learn about them, the better chance they'll have down the road.

During the midterms, it made sense not to mud-wrestle with President Trump on immigration. (I suggest you be guided by this George Bernard Shaw quote: "Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.") But many of you are here to join that fight, and Democrats need to hone a coherent position. Two areas to start with are public charge and a path out of the shadows for undocumented workers here already.

By changing the rules that determine whether someone is deemed a “public charge,” the Trump administration is pushing a radical policy that without congressional involvement would “effect major changes in the nation’s immigration system, shifting it away from family-based immigration toward one restricted to people who are already relatively well-off or highly skilled when they enter the country.” Again, people need to know about this, and the more public hearings and comments you can help generate on this unjust, self-destructive attack on legal immigrants — and, in some cases, their citizen children, who will be frightened from accessing public benefits as a result of this policy — the better.

Both "dreamers" and undocumented workers need immediate protection from deportation and a longer-term path to integration and citizenship. Note that neither of these groups invoke arguments about broader and more complicated immigration flow or border issues. They're here already, and we help neither them nor the rest of us by ignoring their status.

Finally, whether it's new ideas, such as infrastructure or job subsidies, or protecting much-valued old ones, like Social Security or Medicare, you're going to be told that there are simply no resources. Just look at the rising debt!

To which I say, just look at whose fingerprints are all over that rising debt. As noted, the tax cut broke the linkage between growth and improved fiscal balance. Democrats must repair the fiscal damage. One point of reference in this regard is rising wealth and profits, even as real workers' wages are just now catching a bit of a buzz. Closing the many wide loopholes that favor wealth and inheritances is both good fiscal policy and good politics in the age of Trump.

Also, let’s see a strong push to fully fund the IRS, simply to collect what’s owed. Each dollar spent on tax enforcement raises $18 in revenue, and recent budget cuts have reduced the tax agency’s enforcement staff by 28 percent. Remember, this is not a fight about whether taxes should be raised or lowered; it’s a “fair share” argument to, as I recently put it on this page, “block the gaming of the tax code by lawyered-up tax avoiders, to collect what is owed, and, in so doing, to fight back against the corrupt plutocracy that we saw in the Paul Manafort trial and ... in the dealings of the president.”

There's a lot more for us to talk about, but you've already got a lot on your plate. So again, welcome fresh-women and -men! Settle in, fasten your seat belts, and let's roll!

| Courtesy Jared Bernstein, op-ed mug.

Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and author of “The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.”