DON'T FEEL BAD if you're having a hard time judging the merits of the administration's jobs proposal and the reworked version being offered by the House. What's at issue is more form than substance.
The administration started off the current debate about two weeks ago by sending Congress the outline of a $4.3 billion plan calling for a modest amount of humanitarian aid and a speeding up of already planned federal construction projects. The details of the plan remain exceedingly vague not because they're hot but because no one seems to care much about them. Administration aides concede privately that the White House plan was driven not so much by an impulse to relieve hardship among the jobless as by a desire to head off a veto-proof congressional jobs alternative that seemed to be in the making.
The House Appropriations Committee finished fiddling with the package on Friday. It added a bit to the total and focused a small part of the money on high unemployment areas. But mostly it just substituted its own pet projects for the president's. Mr. Reagan says he can buy "75 percent" of the Democrats' bill--primarily the part he originally proposed. He especially objects to replacing some heavy construction projects with social welfare and community service activities on grounds that the latter don't create jobs.
Apparently the president believes that it's not really work if you don't have a shovel in your hand. This is a curiously anachronistic perception in an economy in which blue-collar employment is of relatively small and diminishing importance. But the faults of the measure go beyond its preoccupation with bricks and mortar. At heart it's not a jobs bill. It is, as Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) remarked, "a piece of paper with pet projects for everyone with an 'in'."
The labor committees in both houses know perfectly well there are better ways to spend $4 billion to help jobless people. But the leadership has kept these committees out of the current action and advised them to wait for a "second round" of job proposals. That would be a mistake. As Rep. David Obey (D- Wis.) warned his colleagues, "this is the only turkey you've got to ride on." Once the current fever has passed, it is unlikely that a sufficiently broad coalition can be mustered behind a job aid bill.
The president has indicated he is willing to spend about $4 billion to help people get jobs. That's not enough money to spur an economic recovery or make a noticeable dent in the unemployment rate. But it is enough to help a substantial number of hard-hit people get back on their feet. It's up to Congress to see that the money is spent for that purpose.