Jobs Bill Jumble

Competing narratives and conflicting theories as Congress delays action

The news today is that Democratic leaders in the House delayed a vote on a jobs bill. But good luck figuring out what’s driving this particular debate. Different press accounts offer competing narratives and conflicting theories. For an out-of-work reader hoping that Congress gets its act together and renews unemployment benefits, it’s just too hard to sort out the story.

Reuters takes a big swipe at it, saying the main opposition comes from Blue Dogs:

With the benefits to expire at the end of this month, the House of Representatives delayed a vote on the $134 billion bill amid pushback from fiscally conservative Democrats concerned about the bill’s new taxes and cost.

And some House Democrats are reluctant to support a bill that may still not have enough backing to pass the Senate, according to congressional sources.

The Journal goes more or less the same way in looking to the Senate, where Kent Conrad, chairman of the budget committee, worries that the package is just too expensive. And he doesn’t like the trick of calling provisions like a summer jobs program and that Medicare rate fix “emergencies,” meaning they don’t have to be paid for with offsetting cuts from other parts of the budget.

But clearly it’s more complicated than that. The Washington Post goes broader, painting the jobs measure as something that gives lots of people reason to dislike it. Conservatives don’t like the idea of unemployment benefits that last for almost two years, and liberals want a New New Deal instead.

The Post also points out that, though Democrats call the package a “job creation” bill, “the bulk of the money goes to keeping current payment rates for doctors under Medicare ($65 billion), aid to states for Medicaid ($24 billion) and unemployment benefits ($47 billion).”

And Reuters points to a controversial element of the bill, which would increase taxes on fund managers in private equity and other firms from the current 15 percent to at least 35 percent. That’s important, and no surprise that “private equity and real estate interests” are lobbying hard to kill it.

But the Post at least gives readers a reason someone might even be for such a measure:

People who are unemployed can now claim up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, a huge increase from the 26 weeks most people received before the extensions of the past two years. Under the bill being considered by the House, those benefits would be kept in place for the rest of the year, offering aid to more than 5 million people whose benefits would otherwise run out.

Yeah. That unemployment problem just isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Doubt the crisis is real? Check out this picture in the Times, of people lined up, hoping for a job at a new supermarket in Denver.

But Politico takes the most politically nuanced approach, by far.

Mixed signals from the White House are making life harder for Democrats this week as the party tries to navigate between competing demands to reduce the deficit while also investing in new jobs and a patched-up safety net for the unemployed and the elderly.

The House and Senate are struggling with two big spending bills before Memorial Day — a heavy lift that begs for a strong White House partner. But the administration appears internally conflicted and has adopted the practice of urging lawmakers to add new spending for its priorities without having President Barack Obama sign a real request.

There’s a lot to this report, like the expected death of a “$23 billion emergency proposal to forestall threatened layoffs of public school teachers” which is called “a likely casualty of this approach.” There’s also that intriguing focus on whether or not the president actually signs some of these spending requests—a focus that might make more sense if the story explained why that matters.

The whole jumble of jobs bill coverage leaves me with two clear thoughts, though neither is about prospects for the jobs bill.

First, with congressional leaders finding it hard to get the votes for such important spending priorities, the press would do well to be more skeptical of run-of-the-mill proposals from lawmakers to spend more money on pet projects.

Here’s the WSJ on a proposal from Sen. Chris Dodd and others to “throw a $2 billion lifeline to struggling public transit systems in New York and other big cities.”

The bill, introduced with the support of seven Democratic co-sponsors including Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and lawmakers from New Jersey, Ohio and Illinois, would allow transit agencies nationwide to use federal money to reduce fares and restore service cuts made after January of last year. The proposal’s prospects aren’t clear at a time when Congress is under pressure to cut federal spending.

It’s nice to know that the American Public Transportation Association thinks public transportation systems should get more government funding, and that an MTA spokesman in New York says, “We hope it passes.” But the proposal’s prospects aren’t clear? Could we get a bit more on that, please? Is there even a chance this thing gets a vote?

Second, it’s important to underscore the point that Harold Meyerson makes in his column today.

Of all the gaps between elite and mass opinion in America today, perhaps the greatest is this: The elites don’t really believe we’re still in recession. Or maybe, they just don’t care.

How else to explain the continual harping on the deficit by editorialists, centrist think tanks and the like when the nation is still enmeshed in the most serious economic downturn since the 1930s? How else to understand the growing opposition to the jobs bills Congress is set to vote on this week, particularly when nobody has identified any future engine of American economic growth save countercyclical public investment?

Meyerson is good to use poll data to support his point. And it’s pretty compelling.

While concern about the deficit does register in polls, it’s nowhere near the top of the list. Instead, it’s jobs. A Fox News poll this month found that 47 percent were concerned with the economy and jobs, versus 15 percent who worry about the deficit and spending. He’s got more numbers like that, and scary stuff on public anxiety over the job market.

That’s a real disconnect, and one that the business press needs to address. Meyerson charts a good course:

Those who oppose the jobs bills in the House and Senate this week should be compelled to answer some questions, starting with: Absent more stimulus, what do they see as the plausible engine of economic recovery? What effect will laying off as many as 300,000 teachers have on the education of American children? And, more elementally, don’t they know there’s a recession on?

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at