We have gotten so used to hyperpartisan sniping and dull-witted sound bites that when you finally hear one — two, even! — politicians demonstrate a granular grasp of the issues, pragmatism and farsightedness, it’s both surprising and invigorating. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce got a dose of grown-up governance on Thursday morning at a round table with Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Before the event I asked Kaine about the prospects for end-of-year legislation. “I think criminal justice prospects are high. ... The budget issue is a challenge, it really is.” Congress laid out two options, he said — $1.6 billion in border security funding (up from the $1.3 billion last year that the administration could not spend entirely) or pass everything else (there are six other, noncontroversial appropriations bills) and keep talking for two months. (Warner cracked, “I’m still waiting for the check from Mexico.”)
On the Yemen issue he said, “We are going to have a strong vote in the Senate. ... [It] sends two very important messages — that we are starting to pull back to ourselves the initiation of war ... and to the Saudis that they aren’t going to be able to walk around on Capitol Hill as if they have a free pass.” Interestingly, he noted that as his “last act of public service,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) “squirreled away” a provision in the newly passed farm bill that would make it unnecessary for the House to vote on whatever the Senate passes on Saudi Arabia.
Kaine and Warner were both enthusiastic about issues that don’t necessarily get headlines. Warner spoke passionately about the need to improve investment in “human capital” — be it by tax changes, accounting changes or changes in education policy. He said that we need to think much more “radically" in bolstering workforce capital. Kaine, who will be working on a new higher education funding bill next year, emphasized the need to promote alternatives to four-year colleges. (He noted that the labor shortage is so acute that employers are looking to take workers still under supervision in a drug rehabilitation program)
Both Democrats were enthusiastic about the new Amazon headquarters in Arlington, which they envisioned will help attract other high-tech businesses and retain millennials in the region. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.) Warner said that “this is going to be a game changer” for the region and the state as a whole, and he praised the decision to split the headquarters in two (the other location will be in New York City). “It makes it more palatable,” he said in reference to the challenges of integrating 25,000 new employees in Northern Virginia. Kaine said that a regional housing authority is needed to assure continued access to affordable housing and suggested that some Amazon partners and contractors could be located “downstate,” a nod to areas that have been economically left behind.
The senators ticked through the nitty-gritty of improved governance: reducing the backlog of security clearances which reached 700,000 at one point; investing in cybersecurity to push back when we are attacked; buying phones and computer equipment with better security; moving forward on climate change (Warner pointed out if they call it something else — “sea-level rise” — Republicans are more inclined to go along); fine-tuning Dodd-Frank; and getting federal priority to refurbish the Memorial Bridge. The two former governors showed their wonkiness, but also a recognition that these kinds of issues cumulatively make a big difference in livelihood and quality of life.
Warner called President Trump’s previous infrastructure plan “a scam extraordinaire,” since it actually took more money out of the federal highway trust fund than it put in. He said, “We have to put up new federal funding. We cannot simply wish money out of the sky.” Kaine was especially optimistic about the prospects for a bill, which could include broadband, noting that “there is no more natural connection between the president, who is a builder, and the Congress” than on infrastructure. He said that if Trump wanted to get something done, this would be the topic.
It was refreshing to hear two lawmakers praise free trade — while also acknowledging the need to help those displaced by trade and automation. On the new NAFTA, Kaine warned Trump not to “pull the plug” on the existing deal as a means of pressuring the Senate to pass the new deal. He said that it would be “idiotic” for Trump to try bullying the Senate. “We’re the Article I branch. We don’t play Mother May I.” Warner criticized Trump for creating a crisis in trade that has frayed relations with allies. He also expressed concern that having created a tariff war with China, he will settle for increased purchases of U.S. agricultural products but “give away the store” on issues such as intellectual property.
Warner was blunt about the impact of the tax code, asserting that it was a missed opportunity to use revenue for investment in human capital and infrastructure. He also said that thanks to the debt it rang up, it depleted “most of the tools in our toolkit” should a recession come along.
A Senate of 100 Tim Kaines and Mark Warners would be fully capable of tackling some complex problems. Yet what becomes apparent in listening to some of the most dedicated legislators is that our biggest problem is not trade or China or any other external challenge, but the hyperpartisan know-nothingism of many of their colleagues. Unless we start electing more serious problems, none of our policy challenges can be fixed.