Politics putting jobs at risk

Given their euphoria over Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election victory in Wisconsin on Tuesday, the temptation by Republicans to overplay their hand could prove irresistible.

But if House Republicans negotiating a crucial spending bill for roads, bridges, rail and transit are so tempted, the big loser could be the fragile U.S. job market.

To recap a subject we addressed in March: The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan transportation bill (the vote was 74-22) that would invest $109 billion over two years in needed projects and support hundreds of thousands of badly needed jobs nationwide — including more than 30,000 in Washington. The Senate bill would simply continue current spending levels, which are due to expire at the end of this month.

Given last week’s anemic job figures, especially in the construction sector, agreement is more urgent than ever.

Senate and House negotiators are currently wrangling over details. But in reality, negotiations already took place in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans cut a reasonable deal. The GOP-led House never even passed a bill of its own.

Now, with the expiration of current funding approaching, a bipartisan coalition of pro-transportation groups called Transportation for America says House negotiators are bringing little more than obstacles to the table, pressing to win approval of a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline in exchange for their cooperation on the transportation bill. (The Obama administration delayed full construction of the pipeline, pending further environmental review.)

Jobs are Republicans’ main argument for overriding the pipeline delay. Yet to get a comparitive handful of construction jobs, they’re putting hundreds of thousands more such jobs at risk.

If House leaders think they’re in a stronger bargaining position because of Walker’s victory in Wisconsin, they’re playing another risky game. Such a strategy could backfire if it looks like House Republican leaders are actually trying to stall the economic recovery in order to enhance their own electoral fortunes in November.

Transportation spending bills have traditionally enjoyed strong bipartisan support, because building such infrastructure is good for business and is such an obvious role of government. When freight is delayed or workers’ mobility is compromised by a crumbling or otherwise inadequate system of highways and bridges, business suffers. Ultimately, so does the economy, and job creation.

This potential standoff looks like a microcosm of the current fiscal stalemate in Congress, but it shouldn’t be. The stakes of inaction are immense and immediate. House Republicans need to put electoral politics aside and join their Senate colleagues in approving a two-year transportation bill and putting Americans to work — now.