Congress, with the administration on the verge of following suit, is about to embark on an antirecession program of federal job creation much like those that peaked in the 1970s only to fall into severe political disfavor by the end of the decade.
Those programs aroused disapproval because they didn't work. They didn't work because they got caught in a double bind: public works job programs took so long to get off the ground that the recession was over before significant numbers were hired, while "quick fix" hiring programs channeled through city governments provoked charges that politicians created "sidewalk inspector" patronage jobs for their cronies.
The current near-complete about-face is the political consequence of having 11.6 million people out of work and the prospect of sustained unemployment running well into 1983.
For President Reagan, the recession is forcing a major alteration of his antidomestic spending and antitax initiatives that were dominant in his initial months in office. The White House is now giving strong consideration to a proposed multibillion-dollar program of rebuilding the nation's roads and bridges with a 5-cent-a-gallon tax hike on gasoline.
At the same time, congressmen of both parties are exploring the possibility of new federal programs to put people back to work, less then two years after they voted to gut the jobs programs that started with the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961 and culminated in the controversial Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which reached a fiscal height of $12.7 billion in 1977.
The hurried drive to put people back to work, however, raises a host of questions:
* Who will benefit? Adult males in the heavily unionized construction industry caught in what amounts to a depression, for example, black teen-agers, half of whom cannot find work, or women whose low seniority makes them first to go in company cutbacks?
* Who will be targeted? Urban centers where unemployment is concentrated, or entire states? The northern Frost Belt or the Sun Belt?
* Will the program be effective or will it get caught in the double bind of the past? Channeling money directly to city and county governments is one of the most effective ways to get large numbers of unemployed persons into jobs. Such a program, however, raises deep anxieties, particularly among Democrats, that they will be accused of creating unproductive "make-work" or patronage jobs to be distributed by city and county officials.
Conversely, a heavy public works program to repair a decaying road and bridge system takes much longer to get started. Financing it with a gasoline tax hike could mean that taxes would be raised during the recession, further depressing the economy, while the jobs might not come on line until the recession had started to end.
What is the cost of each job created? The biggest bang for the buck in the short run comes from direct grants to local governments to hire new workers, whose salaries account for about 90 percent of each dollar.
This kind of "quick-fix" approach, which was embodied in the $6.8 billion public service employment section of the CETA program in 1977, came under heavy political fire because of charges that local officials used the money to hire political workers, and that the jobs were not productive. Reforms enacted in 1978 failed to restore the public image of the program, which ultimately fell to the Reagan budget axe.
Major public works programs cost far more in terms of direct job creation -- only 20 cents to 65 cents on the dollar goes into wages, the rest into equipment. But proponents argue that the needed trucks, steel, paint, asphalt, etc., indirectly create additional jobs in the private sector.
The proposal that currently appears to be in favor is a gasoline tax increase to finance road and bridge repair.
The Democratic House leadership is willing to support a tax hike and many Senate Republicans have signaled a willingness to support it. And, the White House has indicated that it may drop opposition to the idea, which has the backing of the Transportation Department.
The major beneficiaries would be the road building industry and the construction unions but the program would not much alleviate unemployment of black teen-agers and women.
In addition, the lengthy process of getting the money to state and local governments and bidding out the work can take years, minimizing the immediate antirecession benefits.
The political advantage is that Republicans and moderate-to-conservative Democrats can justify support for it on grounds that it would be addressing a national problem, the decaying "infastructure." There is broad congessional support for federal action in this area that includes such GOP conservatives as Sens. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) and Steve Symms (Idaho).
In an effort to target some of this money more directly to areas of high umemployment and to persons with fewer jobs skills, including black teen-agers, the House Democratic leadership is working on a program that would allocate a significant amount of the money for short-term, "light" public works, including filling potholes and painting bridges. Untrained workers could be hired at the minimum wage for this work.
Although the unemployment levels are higher than any period since the Depression, there is almost no consideration of a CETA-type public service job program designed to get as many people as possible on the public payroll as quickly as possible. Such a program would encounter strong opposition both from Republicans and suburban and rural Democrats in the House.