The Democrats have plans-politically minded plans a dozen powerless years in the making. They want a higher minimum wage, lower interest rates on college loans, and federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. They want to tighten controls on lobbyists, negotiate for cheaper prescription drugs, and enact all of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.
But what the newly anointed majority party wants most is its man-or woman-in the White House. Until then, the Democrats' domestic agenda may accomplish little more than helping President George W. Bush locate his missing veto pen. In a guest column for The Wall Street Journal Jan. 3, the day before the 110th Congress opened, the president wrote, "If the Congress chooses to pass bills that are simply political statements, they will have chosen stalemate."
Though eager to advance their vision after a long spell of Republican majorities, Democratic lawmakers are wary of overreaching. Their initial slate of proposals, while strategically diverse, is modest and fails to address the country's most pressing concerns-illegal immigration, Iraq, and the broader war against militant Islam. Nor does it take aim at the Bush tax cuts, missing an opportunity to energize a vocal far-left contingent rabid for partisan catfights.
Despite widespread comparisons to the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America, which significantly reshaped the country's economic policy, much of the Democrats' program hardly seems worth a political quibble. Bush may go along with the plan to raise the national minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour-provided the resultant harm to small businesses is offset with tax breaks.
The greatest impact of such a hike would fall on the tiny percentage of workers unable to develop job skills worth more than the current bottom rate. Most minimum wage earners are entry-level employees who benefit from on-the-job training and quickly advance to higher pay scales. The loss of such opportunities would disproportionately harm minorities.
But with less than 3 percent of the population affected, according to 2004 figures from the Department of Labor, the national economy would suffer little. "The people who are hurt by [minimum wage hikes] are pretty well disenfranchised and invisible," said Stephen Entin, executive director of the Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation. "So Democrats will score their political points and not worry about who they're hurting."
Bush is also likely to go along with ethics reform as Democrats attempt to pass new restrictions on lobbyists. Other prominent Republicans, such as new House minority leader John Boehner of Ohio, have likewise shown support, working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to explore the idea of an independent ethics panel to monitor congressional conduct.
Bush's Wall Street Journal column calls for such bipartisan efforts, softening threats of vetoes with optimistic projections: "I am hopeful we can find common ground without compromising our principles." Some pundits doubt whether that accommodating tone will last if Democrats launch ceaseless investigations into whether the Bush administration misled the country in the run-up to the Iraq War. Leaders of the new majority party have pledged not to be vindictive, but pressure from particular Bush-hating factions may prove too much to withstand.
Regardless, Bush believes common opposition to earmarks will demand bipartisan cooperation. Many Democrats campaigned with promises to reduce or even eliminate pork-barrel spending. That strategy proved so successful that both parties will likely now jockey to prove their newfound disdain for such backdoor appropriations.
GOP Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jim DeMint of South Carolina took the lead for Republicans on that issue in blocking the passage of pork-laden spending bills last month. The stubborn pair of fiscal conservatives forced the party to forfeit its control of the 2007 budget to Democrats. Republicans passed a continuing resolution, which essentially locks funding levels for federal programs at 2006 levels through February. The Democrat-controlled Congress will have the option of extending that resolution through the year or passing new appropriations bills.
Eager to appear more fiscally responsible than Republicans, Democratic leaders appear ready to resist the urge to begin funding pet projects back home. Any increase in spending could necessitate raising taxes under the Democrats' pledge to return to "pay-as-you-go" (pay-go) budget rules. Though Bush kept his veto pen capped for Republican appropriations, Entin says that had more to do with supporting political allies than generally approving of earmarks: "He has no reason to help the Democrats buy votes in their districts."
If last November's midterm elections are any indication, voters are no longer for sale. Several incumbent Republicans who bragged of their ability to bring home the bacon lost their seats to Democratic challengers promising change. Even if those Democrats abandon such promises for their party's reputed tax-and-spend identity, Bush remains committed to defending his income tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.
Economist and Wall Street Journal editorial board member Stephen Moore views those tax cuts as the most critical item Republicans must defend over the next two years. "Those have been so important for the economy, and it's the last issue Republicans have left as their brand," he said. "They have to fight any impulse from the Democrats to cancel those tax cuts or to raise other taxes."
That impulse may grow strong when Democrats seek to address the alternative minimum tax, which will raise the tax burden for 23 million Americans this year rather than the 4 million it affected in 2006. Both parties are committed to preventing that sudden change, but under the pay-go rules, Democrats would need to recover the lost $40 billion elsewhere.
Military spending is one possibility. Bush intends to increase troops in Iraq before any withdrawal begins, a position sure to draw squawks from anti-war Democrats preparing for a 2008 presidential run. Barring rapid and dramatic improvement, Iraq figures to dominate the political discussion for at least the next two years and largely determine the nation's next executive branch leader.
As yet, Democrats have outlined no unified position on the difficult fight in the Middle East, some calling for immediate troop withdrawal while others advocate sending reinforcements. Such diversity of opinion favors the Bush mission, preventing consensus opposition from the majority party.
Iraq is not the only issue on which this Democrat-controlled Congress will struggle to agree. Pro-life Democrats continue to increase among the party ranks, and widespread disagreement remains over how to solve the country's massive problem of illegal immigration. "In the Democratic Party, they've elected a lot of people who ran as conservatives," Moore said. "So that means it's going to be very difficult for them to govern as [united] Democrats if they want to safeguard all these House seats they picked up in Republican districts."
Should Democrats fail to unite, however, the label of do-nothing party could haunt their presidential nominee, an injurious tag no matter how charming the candidate.