Tom Cotton has an idea that could help make the GOP a working-class party

By Henry Olsen
The Washington Post 

The Republican Party will have to shift its economic thinking if it is truly going to become a multiethnic, working-class party. A new bill from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that would offer federal scholarships for postsecondary vocational education is a good example of how the party can do this.

Cotton’s American Workforce Act, derived from a concept developed by the reform-oriented American Compass think tank, works like this: Every citizen with a high school diploma or GED, but without a college degree, can receive a $9,000 federal voucher to pursue “workforce contracts” with employers. Those contracts would guarantee a full-time job to trainees, coupled with skilled, educational workforce training. The voucher could be used to pay the employer for the costs of that training, up to $1,500 a month. Employers would receive a $1,000 payment for every new employee it hires for a full-time job following completion of the training.

This flexible, employment-based program is exactly what workers without college degrees need. It will help provide them with the skills needed to quickly advance in the modern economy without forcing them to pursue a two- or four-year college degree, which would either be unaffordable or require them to take on thousands of dollars in debt. Many would not even graduate, either because they find the non-job-based aspects of obtaining a degree uninteresting or because they cannot afford to spend years out of the full-time workforce. In other words, Cotton’s program provides the sort of public support we give students in higher education to those without the interest or aptitude for college.

This is the type of flexible, nondoctrinaire thinking a conservative workers’ party needs. Working-class voters traditionally want opportunities to advance but also crave government help to do so. People making middle- or working-class incomes can prosper only with significant aid for education, public services and even retirement. That’s why public support for generous K-12 education, college loans and grants and Social Security and Medicare remains so strong.

Traditional conservative thinking fights against these sentiments rather than works with them. Working-class voters enjoy tax cuts, but they like generous programs that help them more. They would not be anywhere near as well off without the social insurance and social welfare programs initiated by the New Deal. They have never been willing to go back on that innovation, as shown by Barry Goldwater’s crushing 1964 defeat and the continuing unpopularity of former House speaker Paul D. Ryan’s proposed entitlement reforms. Conservative successes, such as the 1996 welfare reform bill and Ronald Reagan’s presidency, have arisen only when they work within the New Deal consensus to introduce more freedom and personal responsibility.

The recent experience in Alaska makes this point crystal clear. Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office in 2019 facing a massive budget deficit. He proposed to close it by slashing government spending, something one might expect red-state voters to like. He also offered voters a huge carrot: He restored full funding for the permanent fund dividend, an annual payment funded by the state’s oil revenue that goes to every Alaska resident regardless of age. That would have increased the yearly check by $1,400 per Alaskan, or $5,600 for a family of four. But Alaskan legislators refused to go along because of the proposed spending cuts, and four years later, Dunleavy has largely retreated from his earlier stance.

If voters in Alaska prefer well-funded services to extra thousands of dollars a year, there’s no hope that the nationwide New Deal consensus will be overturned anytime soon. That insight means conservatives who want to increase freedom and private-sector power need to think creatively rather than just say no to anything the government does.

Cotton’s bill would do that while adhering to traditional conservative values. It would funnel the new voucher to employers rather than government-run community colleges. And it would provide enormous flexibility for businesses to design appropriate training programs. No top-down, one-size-fits-all approach here.

It also may not add to budget deficits. The proposal includes a 1 percent tax on the fair market value of the endowments of the largest and richest colleges, which have soared in value with the decades-long bull market. That would raise close to $3 billion this year, perhaps enough to fully fund the new vouchers. It’s an example of what limited — not libertarian — government should look like.

Some conservatives get it. Two groups founded by Trump administration alumni, the America First Policy Institute and Center for Renewing America, are on board with Cotton’s bill. But the traditional heavyweights remain on the sidelines. The Heritage Foundation has not yet taken a position, and scholars from the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution have not yet commented. Their seals of approval would signify that the party’s traditional sources for expertise understand the need for change.

Cotton’s American Workforce Act is an idea that’s time has come. Let’s hope other Republicans see the light.

Senator Cotton was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army.
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