A bipartisan recipe for American competitiveness

Obama lists three key ingredients to improve America competitiveness: better schools, innovation, and infrastructure. Republicans cite the same list. Can they cook up something together?

President Obama was at it again, walking a factory floor – today, it was General Electric – and talking about how to make America more competitive. He usually names three requirements: better education, innovation, and infrastructure. Who can argue with that list?

No one, which makes this trio of economy-boosting necessities a good place to start for a common-ground agenda between Republicans and Democrats in the new – and divided – Congress.

The GOP-controlled House voted this week to repeal the Democrats’ signature health-care law, but Republicans, too, underscore the need to improve in these three jobs-building areas. President Obama can get the bipartisan ball rolling by laying out specifics in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, a speech that’s bound to emphasize working with the other side as a result of the November elections.

Adding to this possibility of a bipartisan agenda is all the unfinished business in Congress. Large programs for highways, bridges, transit, and air travel need to be authorized. They’ve been limping along on short-term funding extensions.

In education, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) awaits reauthorization. Passed in 2001, the bipartisan act aimed to make all public school students proficient in reading and math by 2014 – an unrealistic target, but the kind of goal the nation needs to be globally competitive.

America still has an innovation edge globally. But businesses worry that the country isn’t holding onto foreigners who come to study at US universities or investing enough federal dollars in research and development. The US is behind Europe and China on alternative energy and high-speed rail.

But while Republicans and Democrats may broadly agree that America needs to restore crumbling bridges and move more kids to the head of the class, they still differ on how to get this done.

The federal budget crisis has sharpened those differences.

In the states, two newly elected Republican governors have turned down federal money for high-speed rail because of the state commitment it would involve. New Jersey’s GOP governor likewise has refused federal funds for a tunnel to Manhattan, canceling the project.

In the House this week, a group of Republicans proposed rolling nonsecurity discretionary spending back to 2008 levels. Even if that doesn’t actually happen, a deficit-cutting mood will make it tough to pass a highway transportation or aviation bill.

And while the Democratic lame-duck Congress renewed a law to encourage innovation in the energy sector, securing funding for that is another question.

In education, can Republican House Speaker John Boehner (who worked to pass NCLB) and Obama (who supports reauthorization) control the wings of their parties and push through an improved version? Issues like vouchers, merit pay, and “teaching to the test” still divide conservatives from liberals.

In the end, the financial squeeze could also bring both parties closer on an agenda to make America more competitive – not by spending more, but by changing the way things are done, and by relying more on the private sector.

Obama is already moving in this direction. This week he announced a review of federal regulations to get rid of the “dumb” ones that can stifle business innovation. He also named the chief executive of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt, to head a new economic advisory panel, the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

On Tuesday night, watch to see if the president revives the idea of an “infrastructure bank” to raise private capital for building roads, rail, and other projects. The new Republican chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, backed a bigger bank than the one the Obama administration talked about in the past.

Both parties, too, are talking about tax reform that would reduce the corporate tax rate – yet another way to encourage innovation and job creation.

Political sparks are bound to fly in the year ahead. But there’s potential for a smoother ride toward smarter students, more advanced technology, and more efficient ways of moving people, goods, and ideas. The president is right to single out these areas of common ground – good earth to grow a stronger, more competitive America.

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