THE BLOG

Some More Radical Ideas for Hillary

05/03/2015 10:00 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2016
Kevin Hagen via Getty Images

I am going to periodically suggest ideas that Hillary Clinton might consider -- both to establish that she is a real-deal progressive and to rally political support from voters whom the economy is leaving behind. Clinton might even outflank some leading progressives by going beyond what is considered politically safe in the current environment.

Another name for that is leadership. So if Hillary wants to show that she's a fighter, let her pick some good fights.

Control Drug Costs. On Thursday, Medicare released a detailed breakdown of the staggering costs paid for drugs prescribed under Medicare Part D. That's the privatized prescription drug insurance program sponsored by the Bush administration in 2003 as a gift to the drug and insurance industries, taking advantage of Medicare's good public brand name.

The law does not allow Medicare to sponsor a public pharmaceutical benefit program -- all the business goes to private insurers -- and the law explicitly prohibits Medicare from bargaining for bulk drug discounts the way the VA (and ever major foreign health system) do.

Two of the three most heavily prescribed drugs, Nexium and Crestor, which together cost the program just under $5 billion in 2013, have cheap generic close substitutes. At the very least, these brand name drugs should cost Medicare a lot less.

President Obama, to his credit, proposed in his latest budget that the law be changed to allow Medicare to bargain for bulk discounts. Hillary Clinton could go beyond that and call for a true public drug insurance program under Medicare, which would save even more money because it would eliminate needless insurance industry middlemen profits. Let the Republicans explain why they are denying consumers these savings.

A Student Debt Jubilee. I've argued this one before, but it bears repeating.

Progressives in Congress, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, have proposed a reform that would allow students who took out loans prior to 2013 to refinance them at prevailing Treasury borrowing rates. President Obama took the first step towards reform with a measure that allows new debt to be financed by direct loans, at low current interest rates rather than using the program as a big subsidy to for profit lenders.

Warren would make that retroactive to benefit many millions more. The Warren bill would be a big breakthrough for former students who are now working adults saddled with exorbitant loan costs. Much of this extra interest cost is a needless windfall to the federal government.

But Clinton could go even further. The whole debt-for-diploma system needs to be blown up.

Public universities were once close to free. They need to be effectively free again, so that graduates without affluent parents do not begin their adult lives with debt millstones before they've even had their first job. Let's make public university free, and if students want to opt for private universities they can opt for a mix of financial aid, low interest loans, and parental help.

Why not pay the cost by taxing the people in the top brackets who've gotten such a break from the system, so that the next generation has a chance, too. Refinancing can limit the damage, but the whole debt-for-diploma concept is wrong. It's time for a high profile leader to say so. Let's see the Republicans explain their opposition to the entire millennial generation.

End All Federal Subsidies of For-Profit Colleges. There are more than 3,000 for-profit institutions of higher education, mostly one and two-year operations. They are heavily reliant on Federal subsidies -- the 15 largest ones get fully 86 percent of their funding from the U.S. government via grants and student loans.

This sector disproportionately targets minorities and the poor, and has disproportionate rates of dropouts and fraud -- leaving vulnerable young people with debts and nothing to show for them. The Obama Administration keeps trying to crack down on the worst offenders, but this is like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

For-profit colleges have the right to peddle their wares to the unwary, but not with taxpayer dollars. It's time to bar them from Federal grant and loan programs entirely. Who would like to lead on this one?

A Moratorium on Job-Killing Trade Deals. Nothing would better demonstrate Clinton's independence from both the NAFTA legacy of her husband and the Wall Street captivity of President Obama. Trade promotion authority that the White House needs for both the Pacific deal (TPP) and the Atlantic deal (TTIP) is now hanging by a thread, as opposition in the House continues to build.

A well-placed boot by Hillary Clinton would be the coup de grace. It would show gumption, leadership and political nerve -- and gain her immense credit from critics of these bogus deals all across the political spectrum. She has tried to waffle, saying that she wants better protections for American workers, but stopping short of opposing fast track authority.

It's time. Some Wall Street supporters might get off her bandwagon -- and good riddance. She has plenty to spare.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

Like Robert Kuttner on Facebook.