Jobs proposals multiply but go nowhere

There is a Senate Republican jobs plan and a House Republican jobs plan. There is a Democratic jobs plan and a progressive jobs plan. There is a new presidential jobs plan and an old presidential jobs plan, although both are equally dead.

What Washington lacks is an actual jobs plan, with sufficient agreement from both parties to actually create jobs.

Instead, the sides have underlined and re-underlined their contrasting sets of big ideas. That pulls them further and further away from real compromise — since each side’s philosophy holds that the other’s is essentially bunk.

For the GOP, the big idea is that government is the main problem.

Republicans have proposed to stop new environmental and financial regulations, and lower corporate taxes. Then, the logic goes, a liberated private sector will pull itself off the mat.

For the Democrats, the idea is that government can be the main solution.

Democrats have also called for increases in government spending on roads and bridges, teachers and firefighters. This money, the logic goes, will spark the private sector to begin hiring workers again.

In both cases, these are old beliefs about government’s role in society, dressed up as answers to a new crisis of employment. For both parties, this is a chance to demonstrate that they have been right about something basic, all along.

“President Obama and my friends on the other side of the aisle of the Senate believe that they can create jobs through government spending,” said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), as he and other Senate Republicans outlined their jobs proposal on Thursday.

There have been some compromises on jobs measures this year, as both parties have sought small wins. On Wednesday, Congress approved new trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, lowering barriers to American exports.

And on Thursday, a House committee approved a small piece of the president’s plan. That was a proposal to repeal a 3 percent withholding tax on some payments to businesses that do work for state and local governments.

But the list of compromises is not much longer than that.

“The fundamental difference is, Democrats see government as a partner in progress and growth. The Republicans — at least those that have been elected recently — see it as the impediment to growth,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

Many common Republican ideas were included in the bill that McCain and other Senate Republicans introduced Thursday, called the “Jobs Through Growth Act.”

It would impose a temporary moratorium on new government regulations until the nation’s 9.1 percent unemployment rate drops to 7.7 percent. That was the level when President Obama took office in January 2009.

Beyond that, any regulation projected to cost businesses $100 million a year would require congressional approval. Also, the plan would repeal the 2009 federal health-care law and the Dodd-Frank Act, which imposed new rules on the financial sector.

“Washington should be pursuing a policy of ‘do no more harm.’ Stop doing stuff. Stop trying to meddle [in] the economy,” said Curtis Dubay, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In addition, the Senate Republicans’ plan would initiate a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, saying that huge government deficits spread crippling worries through the economy. Also, corporate and individual tax rates would drop from 35 percent to 25 percent. To pay for it, congressional committees would be instructed to overhaul the tax code within 90 days to eliminate deductions and loopholes.

“It doesn’t sound like a jobs bill,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), after McCain and other Republicans had laid out their plan. “It sounds like a Republican theology.”

Democrats, for their part, say they’ve tried, suggesting tax cuts intended to attract Republicans.

But they have also embraced a different view of government’s role in the economy: Not only can government help now — it may be the only thing that will.

Obama’s proposal, for instance, included $35 billion to help states and cities retain or hire employees such as teachers and firefighters. It also included $50 billion for improvements to highways, airports and rail. The idea is that this money would flow through the economy, as the beneficiaries make purchases that help other businesses.

“Think of the economy as [composed of] consumption, investment and government. The first two are on the mat. Consumers are heavily weighed down by a lousy jobs market. Investors are on the sideline because they don’t see consumers doing anything,” said economist Jared Bernstein, a former Obama administration staffer now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “In that case, the only game in town is the government.”

The two sides are so divided that, at times, one side’s jobs plan often looks to the other like no plan at all. On Thursday, in a phone call with Obama, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) complained that the president had said the GOP had no plan on jobs.

That was wrong, Boehner told him. “I want to make sure you have all the facts,” he said, according to the speaker’s office.

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David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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