Ron Johnson and Richard Blumenthal don’t agree on much. The two senators—Johnson from Wisconsin, Blumenthal from Connecticut—represent opposite ends of the ideological divide. A conservative Republican from a Midwestern state, Johnson opposes higher taxes and stronger regulations; a liberal Democrat from the Northeast, Blumenthal supports a progressive tax code and robust regulations.
But when Johnson and Blumenthal presented their ideas about job growth at GE and Politico’s “Jobs of the Future” event, the two senators’ views began to converge. Despite their policy disagreements, Johnson and Blumenthal see a similar future for American businesses—one driven by a vigorous and thriving middle market.
If anyone on Capitol Hill understands the importance of mid-sized companies to the American economy, it’s Johnson. A business owner himself, Johnson opened a company called PACUR, which produces plastic sheeting for packaging and printing applications, in 1979. Johnson took a hands-on role in running the business, often personally operating the equipment and keeping the books.
Blumenthal also has a unique perspective on business, albeit from a different angle. As attorney general of Connecticut, Blumenthal fought for consumer rights, labor rights, and environmental protection. He witnessed firsthand the challenges that businesses face from crippling taxes and regulations, as well as the need for a watchdog to protect citizens’ interests.
Of course, while both senators understand the difficulties of middle market businesses today, they disagree on the best solutions. To Johnson, rising health care costs are a major hindrance to successful business—and he believes those costs are exacerbated, not relieved, by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. To Blumenthal, the ACA is exactly the fix the country needs to address these costs. Johnson supports repeal of the act; Blumenthal wants to strengthen it. But ultimately, both understand the need to help employees get the best care possible without breaking the bank.
When it comes to taxes, the senators have similarly divergent views. Johnson argues that the United States must “stop social engineering through the tax code,” while Blumenthal believes taxes help support those most in need. By the same token, regulations are usually unnecessary in Johnson’s eyes, whereas to Blumenthal, smart regulations are an important component of good business and a clean environment.
But on one key issue, Blumenthal and Johnson are in agreement: The skills gap must be fixed if the middle market is to succeed. And to do that, America needs to change the way it looks at education.
“We need to tell our young people: Don’t just go to college,” said Johnson. “You might not need a four-year degree. Vocational training and technical schools are a fine way to realize your potential.”
Blumenthal echoed the idea.
“To have a strong workforce of the future,” Blumenthal said, “we must focus on the skills needed in the United States by the next decade. We need to fuel an innovative economy.” And in order to do that, “the workforce must be trained and educated in the appropriate skills. It’s unnecessary and unrealistic to expect all young people to attend a four-year college.”
Both senators also agreed that technical schools present a possible solution to our current skills-gap crisis. According to Blumenthal, “we need to have a different concept of education. We must train Americans in the technical skills necessary to drive manufacturing—and our economy.”
There aren’t many issues on which a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican can agree. But as Blumenthal and Johnson prove, training the next generation of American workers is too important to get caught up in partisanship. There are plenty of issues that divide Americans, but training and educating our workers isn’t one of them. Growing the middle market, it seems, is a truly bipartisan issue.
Image: RFG Staff