People have such a low opinion of Congress, no matter which party is in charge, that we don’t really expect much out of the place.
Hearings for a Supreme Court nominee – these days any of them – should be a time for serious inquiry but instead become the equivalent of reality TV, and not very good reality TV at that. The only thing missing is for some nominee to go all Will Smith and punch some senator in the face. (We might disagree on which nominee and which senator but we could probably put together a majority in favor of the general principle.)
Much of what we hear about Congress makes the institution sound like a day care for squalling children who are more concerned about lighting up their Twitter feeds than engaging in serious policy.
So when a senator says that Congress is on the verge of passing a piece of legislation that would be “transformative” – and that said piece of legislation will likely pass in a bipartisan way – we have every reason to be skeptical.
Except that Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, appears to be right.
Last week, Kaine made a swing through this part of Virginia. In Charlottesville, he talked with researchers at the University of Virginia about long COVID. In Roanoke, he talked about crime, a topic that increasingly plagues the city. Along the Augusta County-Highland County line, he hiked Shenandoah Mountain to call attention to a measure he’s introduced to establish a 92,000-acre National Scenic Area in parts of Augusta, Highland and Rockingham counties that would unite four existing wilderness areas. In between, he stopped by Dabney S. Lancaster Community College (soon to be Mountain Gateway) in Clifton Forge to talk with students, faculty and administrators about the aforementioned bill that he says may revolutionize education and the economy. That’s where I caught up with him. What he had to say deserves more headlines than it’s gotten. (The only other news media there was The Recorder, the weekly newspaper that covers Alleghany County to Highland County.)
The bill in question is really part of a much larger bill. In January, the House and Senate each passed a massive technology-themed bill – the America Competes Act in the former, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act in the latter. By massive, I mean tomes that would make “War and Peace” seem like a brisk read. The House bill is 2,912 pages, the Senate version 2,726. By contrast, the first published edition of the Leo Tolstoy classic clocked in at a svelte 1,225 pages.
The size of these bills reflects one of Congress’ worst tendencies. “We don’t pass a lot of bills,” Kaine told me in Clifton Forge. As I’ve pointed out before, Congress does not operate on the strict timetable that the General Assembly does. In Richmond, a bill that’s introduced will get acted on by a certain date. You may not like the disposition but at least there is one. In Washington, most bills just sit there, little more than press releases. When one of them shows some sign of actually moving, then other legislators try to tack their bills onto it – so we wind up with these gargantuan “omnibus” bills with lots of parts that have nothing to do with one another. That puts legislators in a position of voting for something that includes things they don’t agree with – or voting against something wholesome because somebody else attached something objectionable. That always complicates the politics of actually getting something done. Richmond, by contrast, has strict rules about allowing only amendments that are “germane” to the core bill. If you haven’t guessed, I’m not much of a fan of how Washington does business, but that’s how it works. At least here, these bills are pretty focused on jobs, so that’s an improvement.
I’ve written before about one important part of these bills. Both versions set up a process for designating and funding “regional technology hubs.” The goal is to make sure the nation’s technology sector isn’t just concentrated in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s Route 128. The Senate version is, to my way of thinking, the superior version because it would designate more tech hubs, and would do so in a way that creates a decent opportunity for someplace in Southwest and Southside to get showered with federal research dollars. The most likely place is the New River Valley, but I discussed all the options earlier, so you can go read that, if you’re inclined. Anyway, that part of these bills is a big deal.
So is another provision – really, more than a provision, a whole separate bill that has been glommed onto the main vehicle. I refer to the CHIPS for America Act, which would promote more domestic production of semiconductor microchips, a critical industry that now is mostly overseas, with entirely too much reliance on China. That part is also a big deal – if you like, say, almost anything electronic and don’t like being dependent on Beijing. This is also a bill with a lot of Virginia connections. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, has been one of the key players behind this semiconductor measure, an intersection of two of his passions – technology and national security. It’s also something that two former congressmen from this part of Virginia who have a mutual interest in technology issues – Democrat Rick Boucher of Abingdon and Republican Bob Goodlatte of Roanoke County – have jointly written commentaries in favor of. (Of note: Both are on our community advisory committee but committee members have no role in news decisions; see our policy.)
So there are two big reasons to care about somewhat different tech bills that the House and Senate have passed. Now comes the third: The so-called JOBS Act that Kaine was talking about in Clifton Forge. This bill would make federal Pell Grants available to students in short-term technical programs, such as many of those offered by community colleges.
Kaine, whose father ran a welding shop, has long been a proponent of career and technical education, a subject that is now coming back into vogue as we begin to realize how many skilled trades jobs are going unfilled. (Ever tried calling a plumber? You know what I mean.) Everybody agrees we need to get more people into those programs, but the details are quite devilish. “A lot of financial aid we have is geared toward traditional college, not high-quality career and technical programs,” Kaine told the 20 or so people gathered at Dabney S. Lancaster. Pell Grants, in particular, require a semester-long program, but that’s not how a lot of credentials programs at community colleges are structured – they’re often shorter.
“People want to be here for weeks, not here for years,” said Dabney’s president, John Rainone. His school’s fastest-growing program is for a commercial driver’s license – aka, trucking. “In less than 60 days you can be on the road,” he said. But none of those students are eligible for Pell Grants the way the law is now. (Even as Kaine was talking to the group of students inside, another group outside was practicing driving big rigs in the parking lot.)
“It’s unfair you’d give a Pell Grant to a student for a traditional college program but will not allow those to be used for career and technical,” Kaine said. Beyond being unfair, it also seems bad policy. “Guidance counselors will absorb the message,” he said. “If they know Pell Grants are available for traditional college but not short-term career and technical, that’s where they will steer people” – even if right now we need more truckers and welders and certified nursing assistants and maybe not so many former philosophy majors working as baristas.
“Pell Grants are walled off from career and technical,” Kaine said. His mission has been to tear down that wall.
What I’m about to tell you is both inspiring – and infuriating.
The inspiring part: None of this is controversial. None of it is partisan, either. Kaine has teamed up with Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio – a Republican – to sponsor the JOBS Act. “We had really good support from the Obama administration,” Kaine said. “We had really good support from the Trump administration. It’s not partisan.” In the Senate, the bill had 55 co-sponsors – a majority in a 100-member body – and they were almost equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. In the full body, not a single senator opposed the bill, Kaine said.
Now for the infuriating part: Kaine has been introducing this bill since 2014. So why hasn’t it ever passed? “The Senate is a funny place,” he said. (Funny as in frustrating.) Since there’s no Richmond-like schedule for acting on bills, this bill has languished, despite overwhelming support. Kaine said a few times it looked like the bill would pass – by getting attached to some measure that was moving – “but then all of a sudden it blows up. All right, wait for the next train to come by.”
This year’s technology bill seemed the perfect vehicle for the JOBS Act. The measure was supposed to be one of several uncontested measures incorporated into the main tech bill – “but one senator got mad because his bill was not being considered so he sank everything else,” Kaine said. He told me later that one senator was Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. Paul’s actually a supporter of the JOBS Act, Kaine said, but if Paul couldn’t have his bill included, then nobody else could either. (This is the kind of behavior that passes for “legislating” in Washington.)
So the Senate version of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act passed without the Pell Grant provision. Fortunately, Kaine and Portman were able to prevail upon two House members to co-sponsor the bill over there – Andy Levin, D-Michigan and Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio. Kaine also gives a big shout-out to the House committee chair most responsible for getting the bill acted on, Bobby Scott, D-Newport News. (Had the 2016 election gone a different way, Scott was considered the front-runner to be appointed to the Senate seat that Kaine would have vacated for the vice presidency.)
Because the House and Senate tech bills are different (the inclusion of the JOBS Act on the House side and not the Senate being just one of many differences), the two chambers will have to work those out in a conference committee. The conferees have yet to be appointed but Kaine is hopeful that a final bill will be agreed upon by the end of April and then sent to President Joe Biden. He’s also hopeful that the JOBS Act will be included in the final version. After all, it passed the House and nobody in the Senate objects to it – but it’s Washington, so don’t commission a census of your poultry too soon, if you catch my meaning.
Nonetheless, Kaine is already talking up what that provision could mean. “I think it’s going to be dramatic and transformational,” he said. “If we can get it passed, it will do an awful lot of good for an awful lot of people.”
Rainone agreed. “A community college student is about $300 away from dropping out,” he said. A single unexpected bill – a car repair, for instance – can end their education just like that. Being eligible for a Pell Grant would make a difference.
This isn’t the kind of bill that is ever going to make it onto the nightly news. There’s nothing here for either Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson to rant about – yet when people talk about “kitchen table issues,” here’s a perfect example of one. An irony: The odds are, if this bill becomes law, most of the people who benefit from it will never know who was responsible for it. And they’ll never know that it has taken eight years to get even an uncontroversial bill this far along. If you’re doing the math at home, you’ve already figured out that’s longer than a single Senate term of six years – and four times as long as a single term of a U.S. Representative.
Kaine said he’d become accustomed to some bills taking seven years or more to happen. When he first joined Richmond City Council, he pushed to move municipal elections from May to November to boost turnout. That, he said, took seven years. “It set my expectations,” he said.
The rest of us can still be frustrated by the slow pace of federal legislating – and hopeful that this “dramatic and transformational” bill will be worth the wait.