In this hopelessly polarized election cycle, our candidates agree on almost nothing. Yet on one policy issue they are almost indistinguishable: occupational licensing reform.
For those of us who thought nothing could top the divisiveness of the 2016 election, 2020 is proving us wrong. We suffered through a pair of contentious debates where the candidates traded jabs and tried to show voters just how different and despicable their opponent was.
The politicians we choose to represent us highlight some of the growing divides among the American people. Just over 40 percent of voters polled do not have a close friend that is voting for the other major party’s candidate. Likewise, over 40 percent of Americans believe that violence would be at least “a little” justified if their party loses the election. Something tells me there is some overlap there. Almost 50 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats would not date someone who voted for the other candidate in 2016.
But against this background of polarization and division, occupational licensing reform has enjoyed growing bipartisan support. We even have both major party candidates supporting licensing reform, a rare spot of agreement.
In the past 50 years, occupational licensing has expanded from being required for 5 percent of workers to being required for over 25 percent of workers. What started as a policy to protect patients from low-quality physicians and snake oil salesmen grew to cover a wide array of professions as more began to lobby for protections for their industry. Today, services that pose no threat to public safety require a license to practice.
The costs of licensing are well established. By restricting entry into a profession, these laws increase wages for professionals, which is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. Different licensing laws in each state make it more difficult to move from one to another. For low-income workers getting a license is painful. For the formerly incarcerated, licensing makes staying out of jail more difficult.
Politicians and voters in both major parties recognize these problems and have been working to find remedies.
While it’s often framed as a Republican issue, it was the 2015 report from the Obama administration’s Treasury Department that helped licensing reform gain greater traction nationwide. The report compiled and summarized all of the research to date on licensing. Just as important, the Obama administration encouraged states to reform licensing laws by considering the costs and benefits of licensing in an effort to find the optimal level of protection for consumer protection. They even provided grants to states to conduct this analysis.
Federal support for licensing reform continued after President Obama left office. The Federal Trade Commission issued a report in 2018 detailed the costs of licensing and focused on reforms to make it easier to move between states and bring your license with you. Like his predecessor, President Trump publicly encouraged states to enact licensing reform.
At the state level, governors of both parties have worked with legislatures to actively pursue reform. Led by a Democratic governor, Virginia passed a three-year pilot program aiming to reduce all regulations, which includes licensing, by 25 percent. Universal reciprocity, which makes it easier for professionals with a license to move and begin practicing, was signed by Democratic governors in Pennsylvania and Montana and Republican governors in Arizona and Utah.
On the campaign trail, both the major party candidates have mentioned licensing reform. Vice President Biden consistently talked about licensing reform while addressing blue-collar workers during the Democratic primary. He referred to licensing as “unnecessary hoops” for workers to jump through and continued, “we have to restore America’s ability and individual American’s ability to fight for their own dignity.”
Trump has included reducing licensing barriers as part of his Platinum Plan for black communities. While less vocal than Biden, he has still praised state-level reforms in public statements as well.
Having different constituencies with different concerns, naturally both candidates frame licensing reform differently. Democrats like Biden speak about the poor and minorities who are impacted the most by the barriers into a profession caused by licensing laws. Conversely, Republicans like Trump focus on economic growth, government overreach, and overly burdensome regulation. Both are right.
While there is agreement between members of both parties, licensing still has its supporters among members in each.
Among the many issues dividing the United States, the need for licensing reform is not one of them. Both parties recognize the costs. Low-income people are prevented from working, the formerly incarcerated are locked out of jobs, consumers pay higher prices, and professionals have lower mobility between states. All this with no effect on quality.
There might not be much that the left and right agree on in 2020, but licensing reform is the rare area of agreement that transcends partisanship. While we have so much division and anger over this election, at least there is one bright spot of agreement, and one that can make a large impact on people’s daily lives.
Conor Norris is a research analyst at the Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation at Saint Francis University. He graduated from George Mason University with an MA in economics.
Catalyst articles by Conor Norris