Republicans see "jobs bills" as election winner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Tucked in his left breast-coat pocket where he can pull it out to wave before TV cameras is ammunition that House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner believes his Republicans can use to achieve victory in the November 6 elections.
It is a four-by-eight-inch card detailing more than two dozen "jobs bills" passed by the Republican-led House last year. They are now bottled up by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, one of President Barack Obama's top allies on Capitol Hill.
"If the president really wants to get the economy moving again," Boehner recently told reporters while flashing his card, "maybe he'll pick up the phone and call Senator Reid and ask Senate Democrats to get off their rear ends."
Republicans cite the list as proof that they are doing their part to address a jarring 8.3 percent unemployment rate that promises to be a key issue in the November elections.
They also see their thwarted bills as a way to rebut Obama's charge that they are "obstructionists" who "do nothing" - a charge leveled by the White House in the face of strong Republican opposition to President Obama's $447 billion jobs package unveiled in September.
With Democrats trying hard to regain control of the House -- which would shift if they win 25 seats in November -- the battle to show effectiveness in job creation is likely to dominate the congressional races. At this point, Democrats are expected to pick up no more than a dozen seats.
Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan firm that tracks congressional races, said the "jobs-bill" card may help many House Republicans believe that they have a "coherent message to run on."
"If they can demonstrate what they are for, they can rebut Obama's charge that they are 'obstructionists' who aren't for anything," Gonzales said. "But we have to see to what extent Republicans are willing and able to follow this playbook."
All 242 House Republicans have been urged by leadership to flash these cards at Washington news conferences as well as town-hall meetings and campaign events back home.
Yet along the way they face skepticism about how many jobs their proposals would actually create - and at what cost. The Republican bills focus largely not on creating new positions but on protecting existing jobs by eliminating federal regulations on businesses -- from Internet firms and oil drillers to cement factories and industrial boilers.
"I have yet to see a single one that was actually a jobs bill," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
"Everyone of these, as far as I can tell, is basically from decades-old conservatives playbook of cut taxes for business, cut regulations for business," Ornstein said.
Reid has called the Republican proposals "subterfuge" and said that cutting regulations would "make people sicker, our air dirtier and our food less safe."
"That's what they're doing to create jobs," Reid scoffed a day after Boehner touted the jobs bills on a TV talk show.
When Obama took office in January 2009, amid a sinking economy, his first priority was passage of a $787 billion economic stimulus bill that he predicted would bring unemployment below 8 percent - a level still not achieved.
Since then, Republicans have insisted Obama's stimulus failed to create a single job despite its $787 billion pricetag.
In reality, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office last November concluded that the stimulus program rescued or created anywhere from 1.6 million to 7.9 million jobs - a significant but expensive achievement.
But with unemployment still high and the elections nearing, Obama last September unveiled a new jobs package that met a wall of Republican opposition. It attempts to create jobs by funding infrastructure projects and helping state and local governments modernize schools and community colleges. It also would help them hire and retain teachers, firefighters and police.
Republicans counter that the main impediment to job growth is excessive government regulation. They cite a Gallup Poll last October of 605 small business owners showing that 22 percent - the largest number - rated "complying with federal regulations" as their biggest problem.
Yet U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data challenges the Republican position. It found that 5.8 million people lost their jobs during 2007-2010 in "mass layoffs" by companies where at least 50 people at a time were dismissed for at least 30 days.
Employers told the agency that only 15,967, or 0.003 percent, lost jobs were because of "government regulations/intervention."
The Republican strategy has won support from some major business groups that have long argued that government regulation impedes business growth.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have not estimated how many jobs the Republican proposals would produce. But in principle, they think that easing regulation would foster more hiring.
Marty Regalia, the chamber's chief economist, said, "There have been all kinds of estimates about how much does the regulatory burden impose on the economy. It's a debatable question."
But Regalia added, "It doesn't help the economy if it is a regulation that doesn't need to be there or if it is a regulation that is overly burdensome."
Bruce Josten, the chamber's chief lobbyist, voices frustration with Reid's refusal to permit votes on the bills.
"What we've said repeatedly is that there must be something in some of these bills that are worth the time, attention and consideration of the U.S. Senate," Josten said.
One House-passed bill would stop the Environmental Protection Agency from clamping down on toxic mercury and arsenic pollutants. Republicans argued that the measure would help retain jobs at domestic cement factories already battered by a sluggish construction industry and Chinese exports.
But the Republican push for deregulation almost certainly would cost jobs in some industries that have sprung up to help companies comply with federal rules. Growth could evaporate, for example, at companies that manufacture and install pollution control equipment.
Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor and ex-U.S. Labor Department chief economist, said he believes that at best the Republican proposals would "reshuffle" jobs.
House Republicans would like to eventually add one more item to their index card. They hope to list a $260 billion transportation bill that could generate 7.8 million jobs.
But that bill, too, is entangled in partisan squabbling and was yanked from the floor last week.
Ray LaHood, a former House Republican member, is among those blasting the legislation from his new perch as Obama's transportation secretary. "It's a lousy bill," he said.