Without doubt, the two biggest threats to the economy are unemployment and the dire financial condition of the states, yet lawmakers have failed to deal intelligently with either one.
Federal unemployment benefits began to expire nearly a month ago. Since then, 1.2 million jobless workers have been cut off. The House passed a six-month extension as part of a broader spending bill in May, but the Senate, despite three attempts, has not been able to pass a similar bill. The majority leader, Harry Reid, said he was ready to give up after the third try last week when all of the Senate’s Republicans and a lone Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, blocked the bill.
Meanwhile, the states face a collective budget hole of some $112 billion, but neither the House nor the Senate has a plan to help. The House stripped a provision for $24 billion in state fiscal aid from its earlier spending bill. The Senate included state aid in its ill-fated bill to extend unemployment benefits; when that bill failed, the promise of aid vanished as well.
As a result, 30 states that had counted on the money to help balance their budgets will be forced to raise taxes even higher and to cut spending even deeper in the budget year that begins on July 1. That will only worsen unemployment, both among government workers and the states’ private contractors. Worsening unemployment means slower growth, or worse, renewed recession.
So if lawmakers are wondering why consumer confidence and the stock market are tanking (the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index hit a new low for the year on Tuesday), they need look no further than a mirror.
The situation cries out for policies to support economic growth — specifically jobless benefits and fiscal aid to states. But instead of delivering, Congressional Republicans and many Democrats have been asserting that the nation must act instead to cut the deficit. The debate has little to do with economic reality and everything to do with political posturing. A lot of lawmakers have concluded that the best way to keep their jobs is to pander to the nation’s new populist mood and play off the fears of the very Americans whose economic well-being Congress is threatening.
Deficits matter, but not more than economic recovery, and not more urgently than the economic survival of millions of Americans. A sane approach would couple near-term federal spending with a credible plan for deficit reduction — a mix of tax increases and spending cuts — as the economic recovery takes hold.
But today’s deficit hawks — many of whom eagerly participated in digging the deficit ever deeper during the George W. Bush years — are not interested in the sane approach. In the Senate, even as they blocked the extension of unemployment benefits, they succeeded in preserving a tax loophole that benefits wealthy money managers at private equity firms and other investment partnerships. They also derailed an effort to end widespread tax avoidance by owners of small businesses organized as S-corporations. If they are really so worried about the deficit, why balk at these evidently sensible ways to close tax loopholes and end tax avoidance?
House lawmakers made an effort on Tuesday to extend jobless benefits but failed to get the necessary votes, and it remains uncertain if an extension can pass both the House and Senate before Congress leaves town on Friday for a weeklong break. What’s needed, and what’s lacking, is leadership, both in Congress and from the White House, to set the terms of the debate — jobs before deficit reduction — and to fight for those terms, with failure not an option.