Congress sits idle while economy falters

@CNNMoney October 6, 2011: 11:30 AM ET
The jobs picture doesn't look good. What's Congress doing about it?

The jobs picture doesn't look good. What's Congress doing about it?

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- You have to pass this bill, and you have to pass it now.

That was President Obama's message to Congress on Sept. 8 when he unveiled an economic stimulus package called the American Jobs Act.

A month has passed. And the bill is all but dead.

The House will not hold a vote on the bill. In the Senate, it appears that there are not enough Democratic votes to muscle the measure through in its current form.

That hasn't stopped Obama from pressing his message. He did so again on Thursday at a high-profile press conference and endorsed a tax on millionaires -- a measure Republicans will never accept -- to pay for the stimulus.

"I don't know if the bill was ever alive," said Craig Jennings, the director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch, a progressive group.

Yes, unemployment stands at 9.1%. Yes, economic growth is barely above stall speed. And yes, the housing market remains tied in knots.

On Friday, economists expect yet another dismal jobs report -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 65,000 new jobs added to the economy. That's not nearly enough.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has practically begged lawmakers to take action.

"Fostering healthy growth and job creation is a shared responsibility of all economic policymakers," Bernanke said on Tuesday.

Message to lawmakers: Do your part.

Washington's gridlock tax in full effect

But Congress remains stuck in neutral. A combination of partisan gamesmanship, political maneuvering and genuine policy disagreements have rendered re-election focused lawmakers impotent at a crucial time.

"It's just a bunch of flatlanders up on the Hill," said Isabel Sawhill, a former Office of Management and Budget official who now works at the Brookings Institution. "They are ignoring all sound economic advice."

Sawhill said what the economy needs is not a mystery: Stimulus measures designed to increase demand paired with long-term fiscal discipline.

But reaching any consensus on economics is extremely difficult in Washington.

"There is just a fundamental disagreement on how to grow jobs and the economy," Jennings said. "It's not like lawmakers are fighting over whether or not to do it, it's how to do it."

Democrats say the best way to stimulate growth is to raise taxes on the rich, and then use the money to pay for investments in infrastructure, teacher salaries and help for the long-term unemployed.

Republicans disagree. They want less government regulation, lower taxes and reduced government spending.

Not a lot of common ground there. But there are a few things both parties might be able to agree on, like extensions of the payroll tax holiday and long-term unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the year.

One problem: Since those measures are already on the books, extending them won't give the economy a boost.

"What they are doing is holding harmless workers and the economy," Jennings said. "If you were to let them expire it would be a tax increase and have negative effects on growth."

One additional policy change -- the adoption of a few free trade agreements -- could provide a small boost.

Long delayed, the agreements are on the move again. Obama sent deals with Colombia, South Korea and Panama to Congress for their approval on Monday.

But on almost every other issue, lawmakers are miles apart.

Some analysts have suggested that if economic conditions were to deteriorate further, Congress would be forced to compromise. Of course, it has shown no sign of that so far. To top of page

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