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Good luck with that pivot

August 5, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

With the debt ceiling debate over for now, the Obama Administration is promising a “pivot to jobs.” Given that the trillions in cuts in the debt bill are going to cause higher rates of unemployment than what we would have had otherwiset, shifting to job creation makes sense. But the Administration can’t create jobs on their own, they need legislation from Congress. Given Congress’ recent history with handling jobs bills, don’t be surprised if the pivot doesn’t result in anything but bitter feelings.

Already this year, the Senate has spent nearly two months debating two bipartisan jobs bills only to end up walking away from both of them because of politically-motivated gridlock.

The first debate was on a bill to reauthorize and expand the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technical Transfer (SBTT) programs, two of the largest research and development funding programs in the federal government. The programs were signed into law in 1982 by President Reagan after being passed by a divided Congress in the middle of a major recession. The programs have a solid history of bipartisan support, and the reauthorization bill that was debated this year has co-sponsors from both parties. But that didn’t stop the bill from be killed and, as a result, congressional authority for the programs expiring on May 31st.

The bill ran into two problems in the Senate. First, senators from both parties tried to use it to force votes on their pet amendments, introducing 150 amendments to it on everything from eliminating unemployment insurance for millionaires to blocking the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases. The burst of amendments was a product of an agreement reached between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell at the beginning of the session to allow senators to propose amendments to bills in exchange for the minority party not filibustering everything. The second problem was a more germane policy dispute. Republicans wanted to be allowed a vote on an amendment requiring regulators to conduct cost-benefit analyses of their proposed rules’ impacts on small businesses. Reid opposed the amendment and feared it would pass if he let it have a vote. But Republicans wouldn’t let the underlying bill move to a final vote without being allowed a vote on their amendment. In the end, the gridlock led to Reid pulling the bill from the floor.

The second jobs bill the Senate attempted was a reauthorization of the Economic Development Administration, which is a grant-making agency that helps economically-distressed communities attract new businesses and encourage expansion of existing businesses that provide jobs. Just like the last bill, tons of amendments were submitted (99 this time), most of them unrelated to the bill. This time, however, Reid decided to control the amendment process more tightly so they could stay focused on the bill at hand. Under an agreement with the Republican leader, he allowed two Democratic amendments and two Republican amendments to be voted on. But since most senators didn’t get to have their pet amendment voted on they blocked a motion to end debate of the bill, effectively filibustering it to death.

Just like the small business R&D programs, the EDA has a long history of bipartisan support. Steve Benen at Political Animal has a rundown of far-right senators giving strong endorsements of the EDA in the very recent past. Every one of them voted to kill the bill in the end. The EDA is now on track to have its funding eliminated starting in 2012.

Clearly the desire to create jobs is getting overwhelmed by the desire to win politically. Senators have shown repeatedly this year that they’d rather force votes on stuff that party activists can use in political ads than work together on stuff that’s good for their constituents. As the 2012 elections draw nearer, partisanship is only going to get more extreme.  

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