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All agree on need for more jobs but differ on how to reach that goal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 5, 2011 - WASHINGTON - With the histrionics over the debt ceiling now fading, partisan lines already have formed around the issue likely to dominate this fall's debate and next year's election campaigns: how to create jobs and jump-start the moribund economy.

New jobless statistics on Friday showed a slight improvement in unemployment to 9.1 percent, but the level is still high. President Barack Obama is planning a jobs-themed bus tour through the Midwest in mid-August. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are pushing their own ideas that reflect fundamental differences in the federal government's role.

"Growing the economy isn't just about cutting spending," Obama said this week, adding that "we're going to have to do more than that" to create jobs when 9.1 percent of the nation's workers are unemployed. He has proposed steps to stimulate the economy, including investing in infrastructure, bolstering jobless benefits and continuing cuts in payroll taxes so that workers have more money to spend.

This week, the president met with the AFL-CIO's executive committee at the White House to discuss organized labor's jobs agenda, which includes direct federal investment in areas like infrastructure. Also this week, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for a markedly different set of actions that business groups say would create jobs by boosting the nation's competitiveness.

Meanwhile, members of Congress from the St. Louis region were reinforcing their positions, which tend to reflect those of their respective political parties.

"Creating jobs is essential," U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, said Thursday. "Congress needs to focus on that goal, but I'm worried that we're going to see more 'hostage-style' tactics by Republicans to try to block the bills we need to pass."

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says creating private-sector jobs is the nation's top priority, but he takes issue with the approaches of Obama, Carnahan and other Democrats. Arguing that Obama's policies have slowed down the economy, he calls for rescinding numerous federal regulations that have discouraged businesses from creating jobs.

"The federal government doesn't create private-sector jobs very effectively, if at all," Blunt told CNN this week. Asked whether congressional Republicans would try to block Obama's jobs agenda, Blunt that he and other GOP lawmakers are "very much on the side" of creating private-sector jobs. "It doesn't matter who gets the credit," he added.

One issue that Blunt has been working with the White House to try to resolve is getting three long-delayed free-trade agreements -- with South Korea, Colombia and Panama -- approved by the Senate, along with an extension of aid to U.S. workers whose jobs might be impacted by such pacts. While business groups back the free-trade pacts, organized labor has objected to them.

Also weighing in on the employment issue this week was Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, who wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post calling for "putting the peace dividend to work to create jobs" as the nation withdraws forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Getting Americans back to work, Clay wrote, is "not a Democratic or Republican agenda, it's an American agenda."

Clay suggested that Congress reform federal contract policies "to stop rewarding corporations who ship jobs off-shore with federal contracts, instead of hiring right here at home." He also backs a "Build America Bonds" program to leverage public dollars to strengthen the private sector and create jobs "by rebuilding America's schools, hospitals, transit systems, highways, the power grid and other vital infrastructure improvements." And he said part of the "peace dividend" should be used to fortify universities, community colleges and trade schools that help retrain workers for new jobs.

Taking contrasting positions is Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, who opposes sharp cuts in the Pentagon budget and argues that the economy's lack of response to the economic stimulus plan shows that federal spending is not the answer to helping create private-sector jobs. Arguing for keeping taxes down and loosening regulations to help businesses expand, Akin said in a recent statement that high unemployment shows that "our economy is faltering under the failed policies of the Obama Administration."

Different Parties, Sharply Different Approaches

The contrasting approaches of Akin and Clay are a microcosm of the wider disagreements between the political parties in Congress, where progress on job-creation legislation will be complicated by the fact that Republicans control the House while Democrats control the Senate.

In the Senate, Democrats are trying to pivot away quickly from the debt-ceiling debate toward an agenda focused more on job creation and growing the economy -- likely to be the key issues of the 2012 elections.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is on the Democratic leadership team, outlined the likely approach in a recent speech. He said Senate Democrats would focus "on those things that economists tell us will get the best bang for the buck"; try to get support from the business community, "so that we can partner with the private sector to create a strong and durable recovery"; and pursue policies that can attract bipartisan support.

Three hallmarks of that plan would include a major highway bill that would focus on infrastructure improvements; a National Infrastructure Bank, which both labor and the Chamber of Commerce have supported, to leverage private sector investment for projects; and an energy plan with incentives to create more clean energy jobs.

While House Democrats have similar priorities, Carnahan told the Beacon that he worried that the Republican majority in that body will try to block such initiatives.

While the St. Louis region lost 28 percent of its manufacturing jobs between 2004 and 2010, Carnahan said it has the chance to turn that trend around and revive its manufacturing base by exploiting the region's strengths.

The second-ranking House Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md. -- who joined Carnahan in May at a jobs forum at the Forest Park campus of St. Louis Community College -- has been trying to lead the charge for a "Make it in America" legislative agenda that aims to create more manufacturing jobs in this country.

In a speech this week, Hoyer said that "the only way to successfully deal with our debt is to create jobs and economic growth in America. After seven months there has not been a single jobs bill -- that is the negligent record of the Republicans."

The House Republicans' jobs agenda focuses on lowering business taxes, loosening government regulations, approving more free-trade agreements, modernizing the patent system and various steps that aim to increase domestic energy production.

Labor Unions' Jobs Agenda

Some organized labor officials have criticized Obama's administration for caving in to congressional Republicans on major issues such as this week's debt-limit deal. That's one reason the AFL-CIO's executive council met with the president this week.

In a statement Wednesday, the executive council said the AFL-CIO "will promote a job creation agenda that will include direct federal investment as an alternative to tax cuts. A jobs agenda that will respond to the continuing high unemployment rates suffered by workers in the construction industry, the bleeding of jobs in the manufacturing sector, and the hemorrhaging of employment in the state and local government sectors."

Specificially, the AFL-CIO's proposals include:

  • Extending the current federal extended benefits program for the unemployed, which is now set to expire in December;
  • Rebuilding and modernizing critical national infrastructure, including a well-funded highway bill and creation of an infrastructure bank;
  • Enforcing the nation's trade laws, fighting against China's currency manipulation to help our manufacturing base recover, and renewing a robust, long-term Trade Adjustment Assistance Act to help American worker whose jobs are impacted by trade deals;
  • Creating a "countercyclical assistance" program to create and stabilize jobs in state and local governments, including adequate federal aid and permanent programs of direct local job creation, adjusted to reflect fluctuations in unemployment rates;
  • Ending tax breaks for companies going offshore and imposing "a financial transaction tax that asks those who caused the financial crisis to help pay for its consequences."

Chamber of Commerce Agenda

Other than the infrastructure bank plan and reauthorizing the nation's core highway program, the jobs proposals of organized labor and the nation's biggest business association have little overlap.

"Good intentions and great speeches are nice but they don't produce paychecks for the more than 16 percent of our fellow citizens who are unemployed or underemployed," says U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas J. Donohue.

In a blog posting Thursday, Donohue called for long-term reforms to boost the nation's competitiveness and create jobs. [A more detailed version of the Chamber's jobs agenda is here.]

"Long-term reforms to boost our nation's competitiveness and set us on a course of robust economic growth and job creation are essential," wrote Donohue. "But jobless Americans want to know how and where they can find work now, not later."

Donohue suggested five steps that the Chamber's economists contend would spur faster hiring in America's private sector without increasing federal spending are:

  • Ratify the pending free-trade pacts with Colombia, Korea and Panama. The Chamber contends those deals would "create hundreds of thousands of new jobs," and failure to approve them would mean that "we'll lose 380,000 jobs to our competitors that have cut their own deals with these countries."
  • Loosen federal regulations on domestic energy producers. "Expanding the development of domestic natural gas will continue to drive gas prices down and bring manufacturing back to the United States," Donohoe contended, adding that some have estimated that easing access to U.S. energy resources could create an additional $150 billion in federal and state revenue and add 500,000 jobs.
  • Reauthorizing the highway bill and its dedicated funding source. "Opening up the infrastructure sector to tens of billions of dollars in private investment -- which can be done through some simple, specific changes in rules, liability, and financial incentives -- could create substantial numbers of new jobs," the Chamber argues.
  • Speed up federal permitting and give more regulatory certainty. "The administration should act to immediately reform the nationwide permitting process," the Chamber says, and revisit "current regulatory proposals that would kill thousands of jobs with no proven benefits to offset this hurt."
  • Do more to welcome more tourists and travelers to the U.S. About 7.4 million U.S. jobs are affected by such tourism and travel, and the Chamber says the number of those jobs would grow if the government would "reform and revise visa, travel, and other discouraging policies" that cause too much hassle for visitors.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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