It is a sad commentary on modern-day Washington, D.C., when bipartisan agreement is met with slack-jawed surprise. Such is the case with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which passed the Senate last week and was greeted with headlines touting a "rare bipartisan achievement" or suggesting "there's hope for Congress."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., shepherded the bill, which is a reauthorization of a jobs bill that originally passed in 1997. Working with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Murray nurtured and coddled the bill through suggestions from other senators and even through input from members of the House of Representatives, crafting legislation that sailed through the Senate by a vote of 95-3. "Johnny and I have been working on this our whole lives," Murray joked. The bill deserves to receive quick approval in the House — never a sure thing — and has the support of the Obama administration.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act seeks to address a familiar problem — unemployment, governing a labyrinth of federal programs designed to train a 21st century workforce. As Politico.com writes, "Workforce law is unwieldy to reauthorize: It's dense and complicated and touches a range of competing interest groups, including businesses, unions, skills-focused nonprofits, disabilities advocates and higher education."
Among the keys to garnering support on both sides of the aisle is the bill's simplicity. It eliminates 15 job-training programs, which was a priority for Republicans, and it streamlines the number of metrics that will be used for assessing the effectiveness of remaining programs. Among the measurements to be used are job placement and earnings by those who go through a particular program, along with job retention and employer satisfaction. Those must be strictly observed, as few things are a bigger disservice to taxpayers than pumping money into programs that have no measurable proof of effectiveness.
Of course, questions also can be raised about the effectiveness of any jobs bill. For all of their grandstanding about creating employment, politicians have only a limited impact on the economy. But studies and anecdotal evidence from employers suggest that the United States workforce is, on average, undertrained when it comes to filling the needs of businesses in a changing economy. As state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, noted recently: "Washington is a net importer of high-tech jobs. We can't turn out enough graduates to fill the demand."
That emphasizes the importance of training programs that produce workers who have flexible skills to meet the demands of employers. Isakson, who joined Murray is spearheading the bill, said: "This bill deals with the skills deficit in America and is going to match some of those unemployed with some of those jobs."
That would be the long-term victory for the Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act. In the short term, merely getting the bill through the Senate, with vast bipartisan cooperation and extensive bipartisan support, is a victory in itself. The legislation faced little opposition because Murray and Isakson laid a foundation through months of pre-conferencing with fellow senators and even compatriots from the House. And the key could be found when Murray noted that they included ideas from others to help those others feel like they could "own a little bit" of the legislation. That's not a novel concept, but it's one that has been missing in Washington, D.C.