While most of official Washington was all hot and bothered about health care reform last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was paying attention to a far more serious concern.
The unemployment rate had spiked, moving into double digits for the first time in more than a quarter century.
Reid’s response was the right one.
At this week’s meeting of Senate Democrats, the majority leader announced plans to take up a new job-creation bill.
The Nevada Democrat has not yet made a formal announcement of the initiative, but senators who were present say that Reid outlined plans to move quickly to make passage of a jobs bill “one of the priorities” of the caucus.
Senators can walk and chew gum at the same time — well, most of them can — so it is possible to have more than one priority. Passing a better health care reform measure than the weak and in some cases profoundly-flawed bill that came out of the House must be one of them.
But, while health care reform is essential, the No. 1 issue in the country today is jobs. With unemployment officially at 10.2 percent, and realistically closer to 17 percent (when people who have given up looking for work or who are under-employed are added to the total), there is no more serious social, economic or political concern for congressional Democrats.
Reid read the results of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, as did other savvy Democrats. They noted that voters in both states rated “jobs and the economy” as the top issue in the 2009 off-year election cycle, and that Republican candidates proved to be abler than expected at capturing the votes of those who were concerned about unemployment, factory closings and the general toll of a recession that may be easing on Wall Street but is still very real on Main Street.
Reid’s not yet talking about a specific proposal.
But he is on the right track when he talks about making a jobs bill a priority. Indeed, it should be the top priority.
What kind of bill?
A big bold transportation infrastructure bill is one prospect. Reid could borrow a page form Congressman Pete De Fazio, the chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. De Fazio voted against the $787 billion stimulus measure that the Congress passed earlier this year, warning that it contained too little funding for actual job creation — and too much funding for tax breaks for wealthy Americans.
De Fazio has continued to press for passage of a meaningful measure that would have as its priority the repair of aging infrastructure and massive job creation. And he has developed smart, budget-friendly financing schemes for it.
Reid should also consider proposals to provide a tax credit for each new hire that businesses make, an approach that has attracted some favorable comment from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
Congress gives away so much money to corporations that tax credits are usually suspect. But the idea of establishing a credit targeted to job creation and strictly regulated so that it will not be abused has attracted the interest of Democratic senators from hard-hit industrial states.
“The Dow has broken 10,000, but unemployment is (over) 10 percent,” says Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, whose hometown of Janesville recently lost a General Motors plant and thousands of jobs. “(Jobless claim figures) reflect a growing level of unemployment that Congress should address… Some have floated the idea of a jobs tax credit as part of a package of proposals. I’ve discussed the idea of a jobs tax credit with a number of Wisconsin businesses and generally got a positive reaction. I’m open to considering this and other proposals that will help get people back to work.”
Feingold’s tougher on corporations than other senators, and that toughness is appropriate.
But Feingold, like Reid, recognizes that unemployment is the No. 1 issue in America. And the federal government needs to get serious – and creative – about addressing the human side of what for tens of millions of Americans remains a scorching recession.