WASHINGTON — When the Senate takes up a jobs bill later this month or early in February, the debate will center on whether it really will create jobs and be worth plunging the government tens of billions of dollars further into debt.
Republicans scoff at the “Jobs for Main Street Act” title that House Democrats put on their $174 billion package last month. They refer to it as “son of the stimulus,” the $787 billion economic recovery plan of nearly a year ago that they say was ineffective at producing jobs.
In its last vote of 2009, the House narrowly passed the bill, 217-212, without a single Republican supporter.
Democrats tick off the job prospects from the House bill’s $75 billion in infrastructure and public sector spending: tens of thousands of new construction jobs, 5,500 more police officers, 25,000 additional AmeriCorps members, 250,000 summer jobs for disadvantaged youth, 14,000 part-time jobs for parks and forestry workers.
“Why don’t we just put everyone in the United States on the federal government payroll and call it a day?” counters Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.
House Democrats diverted $75 billion from the Wall Street bailout fund to offset some of the costs. Opponents said that amounted to a shell game because unused bailout money is supposed to be used to reduce the deficit, which hit $1.4 trillion in the 2009 budget year.
The Senate, however, has less of an appetite for another costly round of economic stimulus measures.
The job creation issue is complicated. Much of the money in the House bill goes to programs that may stimulate the economy but don’t appear to directly put people to work.
There’s $41 billion to extend unemployment benefits for six months and $12.3 billion to extend a health insurance subsidy for people who have lost their jobs. There’s extension of a child tax credit for poor families, $23.5 billion to help states cover Medicaid costs and $23 billion so states can support some 250,000 education jobs over the next two years. An additional $2.8 billion goes to clean water and environmental restoration projects.
Even the investment in “shovel-ready” highway and bridge projects may not immediately translate into a reduction in the nation’s 10 percent unemployment rate.
Republicans cited government figures showing that, as of Sept. 30, only 9 percent of $27.5 billion for highways in the first stimulus bill had been spent. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that of the $39 billion in the new House jobs bill directed to the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, only $1.7 billion will get spent before next October.
A lot of the money “hasn’t even gotten out of Washington yet,” said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House’s second-ranked Republican. “Why is it still here if it was designed to create jobs?”
The CBO has estimated that employment was 600,000 to 1.6 million higher in the third quarter of 2009 because of the stimulus act.