In a time of fractured politics, the reauthorization of major federal legislation designed to help millions of Americans, buoyed by support by both Democrats and Republicans after 18 months of tough negotiations, is truly a cause for celebration. It's also an invitation to redouble our efforts to work together across the aisle and across sectors to expand opportunity to more Americans.
After years of delays and divisiveness, the passage on Wednesday of a reauthorized Workforce Investment Act by an incredible majority of 415-6 in the House of Representatives, and by an overwhelming margin last month in the Senate, 95-3, represents a rare example of genuine bipartisanship, one that must be savored and built upon. The passage of the renamed Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act proves that when an issue is important enough - such as helping more youth and displaced workers get jobs and skills training for the 21st century economy -- we can still find ways to collaborate and compromise for the common good.
The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) is the largest single source of federal funding for workforce development activities, sending nearly $3 billion each year to states to help adults, displaced workers and youth receive skills training and get jobs. Eight million Americans were served by WIA in 2010, the last year such data is available. WIA also supports a network of thousands of "one-stop" centers around the country that provide critical job-search support as well as vouchers for skills training and education.
But WIA has failed to keep pace with changing economic conditions and has needed an overhaul since 2003. Until now, a divided Congress has been unable to fashion a compromise that would modernize this crucial program.
Recognizing that WIA was in desperate need of improvements, a broad cross-section of youth, education, business and workforce advocates representing the private, public and nonprofit sectors, including Opportunity Nation's diverse coalition, worked with key Republican and Democratic lawmakers, pushing hard for its reauthorization. Leaders in the House and Senate, led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Congressman John Kline (R-MN), Congressman George Miller (D-CA), Congresswoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (R-TX) worked tirelessly to find common ground.
The result is a compromise -- the kind we need more of to get this country moving again. Each side had to accept changes they disliked. Yet, in an all-too-rare display of collegiality, Democratic and Republican leaders have praised each other's efforts to reauthorize WIA.
Sen. Murray said she was "thrilled" the two parties had reached agreement. "While we know that nobody gets everything they want," she said, "... at the end of the day, we can proudly say this bill will help our workers, our businesses, and our economy for years to come."
Sen. Isakson called the reauthorization "critically important to getting Americans back to work and meeting the modern demands of business." He reserved special praise for Sen. Murray, calling her "a tireless Senator in working to find common ground on issues that have been critical to both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, but more important, to the workers of the United States of America."
Rep. Kline credited his colleagues from both parties for finding a way to cooperate and update WIA. "We've known about these problems for years, but have failed to act - until now," he said. "We have an opportunity to advance reforms that will help all Americans compete and succeed in today's workforce."
The resulting bipartisan, bicameral Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) represents a big step forward for job skills training -- as well as a victory for a political system beset by gridlock. Reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act will stand as one of the biggest accomplishments of the 113th Congress.
Opportunity Nation is inspired by the bipartisanship behind the reauthorization of WIOA, even as we acknowledge the profound challenges this bill has faced every step of the way over 11 years of reauthorization battles. But we can't stop with this victory. We will continue to advocate cross-sector, bipartisan solutions designed to expand access to the American Dream, including pushing elected officials to reauthorize the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. The more teens and young adults who embark on meaningful education and career pathways, the more our economy and society will benefit - a goal both parties, and indeed, all Americans, can agree on.
Mark Edwards is executive director of Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan, cross-sector, national campaign made up of more than 300 nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, faith-based and community organizations, and individuals all working together to expand economic mobility and close the opportunity gap in America.