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Democrats in Congress Should Try a Novel Tactic: Cooperation

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
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Democrats and progressives, you lost. You can fight President-elect Donald Trump, or you can join him. There will be time enough for fighting, but for now, I suggest that you join him -- at least on some of his high priority items. As it turns out, several of them are your priorities too.

1: Infrastructure. The president-elect is a builder. Let him build.

Everyone knows that America’s infrastructure needs help. Trump wants to devote a lot of resources to upgrading it -- perhaps as much as $500 billion. In particular, he wants “investments in transportation, clean water, a modern and reliable electricity grid, telecommunications, security infrastructure, and other pressing domestic infrastructure needs.”

That’s a terrific goal. Upgrading infrastructure would create jobs, possibly thousands of them, and spur economic growth. Some Democrats and progressives have already signaled their eagerness to work with him. Many more should join the chorus. How about enacting an infrastructure plan within two months of inauguration?

2: Increasing the earned income tax credit. If you are looking for an effective antipoverty program, start here. The EITC supplements the wages of the working poor. It doesn’t just relieve people’s financial burdens; it also improves the health of mothers and infants. Paul Ryan likes it, and so does Bernie Sanders.

Trump likes it too. In fact, he has specifically called for increasing it by giving spending rebates to the working poor for childcare expenses. Many people on both the right and the left have called for broadening the class of people eligible for the EITC and also for increasing it. Trump’s proposal is a good start. There’s reason to think that he would be receptive to more ambitious ideas.

3: Eliminating unjustified regulations. Some regulations save lives; others save money. Some regulations accomplish very little. Some regulations are outmoded, and they impose costs without helping people much or at all.

The Obama administration launched a “regulatory lookback” that has eliminated billions of dollars in regulatory costs. (Disclosure: As administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, I was involved in that effort.) But Trump is right to say that more remains to be done. He proposes to ask “all department heads to submit a list of every wasteful and unnecessary regulation which kills jobs, and which does not improve public safety, and eliminate them.”

Democrats and progressives should support that effort, with particular attention to unjustified burdens on small business. Without demonizing the whole idea of regulation, they should endorse Trump’s general proposal publicly -- and even call for legislation that would require the executive branch to provide an annual progress report to Congress and the American people. In the process, they should work with state and local governments to eliminate duplicative regulations -- and unjustified (and silly) occupational licensing restrictions, which cost jobs.

4: Simplifying permitting requirements and eliminating red tape. Large-scale development projects can produce serious harm, including to air and water quality, so a permitting process is a good idea. But promising projects are too often stymied by inexplicable delays and multiple layers of review, alongside inane paperwork requirements.

Trump is right to support “reforms that streamline permitting and approvals," and that “improve the project delivery system.” An early executive order, building on work in the Obama administration, could help. But some of the obstacles to rapid permitting are congressional creations -- and they can be fixed only with new legislation. In this domain, Democrats and progressives should welcome Trump administration proposals.

There are many more opportunities for collaboration. In addition to increasing the EITC, Trump wants to provide far more economic support to working parents. That’s an excellent idea. He has expressed an eagerness to help more Americans get a college education. Making it easier for veterans to obtain the benefits to which they are entitled is also a good idea. Tax cuts, enacted early in the administration, could give the economy a valuable jolt; progressives do not love cutting rich people’s tax bills, but they should be prepared to give respectful consideration to Trump’s package.

Here’s a more controversial idea: In general, Democrats and progressives ought to allow Trump considerable room to choose his own employees -- far more room than Republicans allowed during the Obama administration. Tit-for-tat is a dangerous game.

That means that Democrats should ease and simplify the Senate confirmation process, by declining to target or filibuster people who have expressed controversial views in the past, affiliated themselves with conservative groups or had minor problems with their taxes. Sure, some nominees may well be beyond the pale. But there’s no justification for flyspecking people’s lives to see if they have supported some proposal or organization with which progressives intensely disagree.

Identifying areas of commonality should hardly be seen as capitulation. On the contrary, it can be an active, even aggressive way to participate in setting national priorities, by establishing that the government is unified enough to move forward in areas in which agreement already exists. That strategy can also fend off, delay, or even stop proposals that seem harmful or offensive, by making it less likely that those proposals will end up at the top of the legislative pile. Moving forward on common priorities could help restore confidence in government -- and even better, help millions of Americans in quite concrete ways.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net