This is the sound of a national conversation, going nowhere.
So far this year, members of Congress have said the words “create jobs” 1,236 times. Almost once for every hour that Congress was in session, according to C-Span data. President Obama has said those same words at least 116 times. Almost every other day.
What they haven’t done, at least so far, is agree on a way to create them.
Instead, Republicans argued for less spending. Democrats argued for stimulating the economy. Congress agreed on almost nothing.
And on Friday, that was what they got — almost nothing. New statistics showed zero net jobs created in August, which left the national unemployment rate at 9.1 percent.
Both parties continue to say they want to reboot this debate on jobs, which has highlighted Washington’s inability to find shared solution to the big issues facing the country. So far, the most substantive fight they’ve had was about whether President Obama should speak about jobs on next Wednesday or next Thursday.
This week, in anticipation of Congress’s return from its August recess, both parties have laid out new plans for increasing U.S. employment. For now, the new plans look a great deal like the old plans — the ones that Congress has fought about for eight months already.
Rep. James Lankford (R), a freshman from Oklahoma, said the new jobs numbers showed that the two parties would have to find the areas of agreement that they’ve ignored so far.
“If we’re trying to constantly put in a poison pill [that the other party won’t accept], we’re never going to move. Never.” Lankford said in a telephone interview Friday. He said the possible areas of compromise include tax reform and scaling back regulations on power plants and small banks.
The House GOP plan for the fall was laid out in a memo from Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Monday. It proposes delaying or rolling back a series of federal regulations — including some cutting air pollutants and greenhouse gases — that Cantor called “costly bureaucratic handcuffs” for businesses.
Already this year, the GOP-led House has voted to roll back greenhouse-gas regulations, and to repeal the health care law. But these bills have largely fizzled in the Democrat-held Senate.
So why would the GOP try the same tactic again?
“It’s not the job of the Republican House majority to design bills that meet [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid’s tastes,” said Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for Cantor. “We have set out an aggressive pro-growth agenda that will foster an environment where job creators and small businesses have the opportunity to grow and people can get back to work.”
On Friday, Republicans did get news of an early victory. President Obama agreed to pull back new rules on ozone pollution — one of the regulations that the GOP had agreed to target this fall.
In the Senate, Democrats say they want to spend the fall working on bills that would use government programs to pump up employment. The exact slate is not set, a Democratic aide said. But it might include a bill that tries to promote energy efficiency overhauls in buildings and homes, through government loans and government loan guarantees.
Another idea would be to extend tax credits for research and development, leaving innovative companies with more cash on hand.
The best thing about these bills, Democrats said, is that they had already attracted some GOP support.
“We hope to get cooperation in passing these measures,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, said in a statement, “because the American people are telling both parties to put the recovery ahead of politics.”
But given recent capital’s current habits of conflict and acrimony, Schumer’s position may be little more than wishful thinking.
“I’m not going to be able to work with the progressive liberals. I’m just not,” Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), a freshman from New York’s outer boroughs, when asked about the upcoming jobs debate. Grimm said would not work with Democrats who believe increased government spending is the solution to the jobs problem. “I’m so diametrically opposed to their views,” Grimm said in a telephone interview. “I can’t compromise with what I consider to be a lack of reality.”
And one top GOP aide dismissed Schumer’s plan as not worthy of Republican support.
“Sen. Schumer’s ‘bipartisan’ plan was written in secret with no input from Republican leaders,” Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said in an e-mail message.
Both sides will unveil more details on their plans soon. President Obama will give an address on jobs to a joint session of Congress on Thursday. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) will give his own address to the Economic Club of Washington a week later.
But the simple math of divided government is this: It will take both sides to make any solution work, and the prospect of that kind of effective cooperation seems as distant now as it did the first 1,236 times somebody said “create jobs” on Capitol Hill.
For instance, on Thursday freshman Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) said he wouldn’t even attend Obama’s speech — which was rescheduled from Wednesday after a tiff with Boehner.
“I don’t want to participate in that. I don’t want to be a prop,” Walsh said. Walsh said he would hold a town-hall meeting in that night in Illinois, believing Obama was not likely to unveil any substantive new ideas. “I know I’m going to get some flak for it. But I refuse to let him deliver another one of these speeches. We’re past speeches.”
The odd part of this debate is that both parties profess to want the same thing, more jobs. But both sides have chosen paths that offer little chance for compromise. Republicans have insisted that the only way to grow jobs is to lower taxes and regulation, and stand back as the free market revs.
Democrats have sought, instead, to stimulate the economy with government programs that offer loans, grants or tax credits. “We’re not willing to lay down and just be run over,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House.
“And the reason we’re not is because that would be bad for the country.”
The result of this impasse — a constant trading of old arguments — reminds some people of a bad marriage. William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that a more appropriate comparison might be the dynamics of a nursery-school playground.
“When infants are young, they engage in something called parallel play,” Galston said.
“They’re both in the same sandbox. And they’re both moving the sand around. But they’re not really engaging each other.”
The stated desire to boost job creation is sometimes little more than posturing.
In some cases, legislators appear to have added the word “jobs” to spice up legislation that failed to attract attention before.
In the House, for instance, Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) had previously failed to win passage of a bill to help the soda-ash mining industry in her state. This year, she introduced the same idea with a new name: “Soda Ash Royalty Extension, Job Creation, and Export Enhancement Act of 2011.”
Like most other job-creation efforts in the Congress this year, it hasn’t passed and likely is not going anywhere.