We Can Work It Out


I have always enjoyed listening to the Senate confirmation hearings over nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. I’m not a lawyer (thank goodness), nor any sort of legal scholar, but I like history, am enamored of our founding documents and enjoy a healthy debate.

Sometimes the debate has veered off into the bizarre, as in the case of Clarence Thomas, or the sensational, as in the case of Brett Kavanaugh, but even the more mundane hearings are interesting to me. Listening to John Roberts discussing the nuances of ancient court precedents was like taking a college course from a truly distinguished professor.

Back in the day, senators would make their speeches, conduct their interrogations, argue over judicial philosophy, and then go ahead and vote for the nominee. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed unanimously. So were Antonin Scalia in 1986 and Anthony Kennedy in 1987. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or the Notorious RBG, was approved by a vote of 96 to 3.

Those days are gone. The last two appointments were indicative of where we have arrived now in American government, not just on Supreme Court matters, but on nearly everything. Both were women, one nominated by a Republican president and one by a Democrat. Both were highly qualified, at least by the old standards.

Each of the two was asked questions that were disingenuous, irrelevant and frankly insulting. Each was forced to endure hours of pontificating from senators simply oozing with self-regard. The vote was 52 to 48 and 53 to 47 respectively, almost exclusively along party lines.

It seems as though everything works the same way these days. You’re on one side or the other, with us or against us. If you’re on our side, you’re supposed to agree with us on everything, and hold the other side in utter contempt. How can they be so stupid? Or worse, how can they be so evil?

I remember when Senator Bob Dole was running for president against the incumbent, Bill Clinton. A reporter asked Dole a question which referred to Clinton as his enemy. Dole immediately replied that “he’s not my enemy, he’s my opponent.” That distinction was something that Senator Dole understood firsthand, but it’s apparently lost on today’s partisan warriors.

Surely, you say, there must be things that all of us, as Americans, agree upon. You’re right, there are a few.

Almost everybody thinks that it is wrong for a nation to invade a peaceful neighboring country without provocation or a credible pretext. Nobody thinks it’s okay to murder innocent civilians, or to intentionally attack schools, hospitals, train stations, nuclear power plants, etc. Politicians may quibble about details, but pretty much all of them support the shipment of weapons and humanitarian aid to the injured party.

If that were the only sort of thing we could agree on, it would seem as if we were setting the bar pretty low. It’s like saying that we all think Hitler was a bad person. (Yes, I know, there are even a few dissenters on that one.)

At any rate, I keep my eyes open for news stories about issues on which the two sides of the political divide agree, particularly those that affect children and education. That’s why it caught my attention when The New York Times ran an article in April entitled “Republicans and Democrats Agree Child Care Needs Help,” by Claire Cain Miller.

According to the article, the legislation proposed by the two parties in Congress is very similar in design and intent. Both address the issues of quality, affordability and accessibility.

The Republican plan, sponsored by Tim Scott of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina, seeks to provide funding through an existing program called the “Child Care and Development Block Grant.” Families earning up to 1.5 times their state median income ($142,000 nationwide) would pay no more than 7 percent of their income for child care, while those below 75 percent of the median income would pay nothing.

Democrats also apply the 7-percent cap, but on income up to 2.5 times median income, or $237,000 nationally. Although Republicans don’t put a total cost on the program, or explain where the money would come from, Democrats peg the price at $382 billion over six years, with the cost being offset by higher taxes on corporations and “the rich.”

The two plans share numerous other common elements. Both offer families a wide choice of child-care facilities, from home based to large institutional settings, including year-round and 24-hour coverage. They also recognize the need to subsidize the building of new child-care centers and the upgrading of existing facilities.

There is broad agreement regarding the need for more training requirements for child-care staffers, particularly in developmental psychology, behavior management and special needs. Incentives for degree attainment are provided in both bills.

Parents must prove that they have a valid need for child care, such as employment, school attendance or medical disability. No one wants to subsidize child care for people who should be providing it themselves.

Of course, the two parties don’t agree on everything. When Joe Biden was running for president, he made clear that it was universal preschool that he wanted, not simply day care. Accordingly, the Democratic bill sponsored by Patty Murray of Washington and Bobby Scott of Virginia covers preschool for children ages three to four. Republicans argue that preschool should be provided by states and cities, many of which do so already.

Another sticky issue is the salary for day-care workers, which currently averages $12 per hour. The Democrat bill calls for a “living wage,” which would be equivalent to elementary school teachers in the area. Republicans would prefer to offer retention bonuses rather than a general salary increase.

As is often the case, there is also some concern about religion-based facilities. The Democrat plan includes them, but also includes a provision that prohibits an institution from receiving federal funds if it practices faith-based teaching, hiring or admissions. Republicans would want to delete that clause.

Still, the overlap between liberals and conservatives is unusually large on the whole issue of federally subsidized child care, and yet there does not seem to be any movement toward passing a bill. That leads to the obvious question, “Why don’t they just pass the parts that they agree on?”

I wish there were a good answer. Part of it is surely that neither side is willing to participate in anything that could be construed as a win for the other, because they fear that it could harm them with their “base.” Part is that votes are used as bargaining chips to secure a particular slice of pork, often having nothing to do with the issue at hand.

The older I get, the more I appreciate Winston Churchill, who once remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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