What Congress Could Do on Jobs, While Hiding Behind Locked Doors

Several lawmakes literally hid from thousands who swarmed the Capitol this week to demand action on jobs. Here's some of the actions they could have long ago taken.

By Shani O. Hilton Dec 09, 2011

Last week’s headlines touted the new low unemployment rate–8.6 percent, the lowest rate the country has seen since 2009 (rates for black Americans remain twice that). But the unemployment rate doesn’t mean what it used to. In tough times, a lower rate gives a picture of how many people have given up on finding work, not the health of the economy. "While the rate is certainly a very favorable rate, I would highlight that a lot of it is because people pulled out of the workforce," Fed Bank of Boston President Eric Rosengren said in a speech last month. And many of the jobs that are coming back are low-quality, low-paying part-time gigs like seasonal retail. It’s with this backdrop that thousands of people, many proclaiming themselves among the millions of jobless, headed to D.C. this week for Take Back the Capitol, several days of action centered around unemployed Americans. Protesters made stops at congressional offices, sitting in and demanding meetings with representatives from across the country. That’s a sensible place to start, considering how many job creation and protection bills have gone through Congress over the last few years–but how few have made it into law. As Colorlines.com reported this earlier year, one quick way to put Americans to work would be turning on the funding for state infrastructure projects. Back in June, Rep. John Conyers’ spokesperson Michael Darner pointed out that states can’t even access the matching funds available to them because they’re "cash-strapped." This week, New York’s state senate passed a bill that creates a $1 billion infrastructure fund, but most states don’t have the kind of capital New York has–and few have been pushed to the edge the way New York has. [According to Doug Hall](http://www.epi.org/publication/state-jobs-picture-november-2011/) at the Economic Policy Institute, "Over the past three months, states in the Northeast lost more than 29,000 jobs, led by New York, which has lost 22,400 jobs since July." But movement to work on infrastructure nationally is being stalled by Republicans who are concerned about tax increases. The recently introduced Rebuild America Jobs Act would pay for infrastructure spending with taxes. It was slammed by Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who said in a speech on the Senate floor, "No, this is the same tune, different song–a bill for more spending, financed with new taxes. It remains baffling to me that this is all that the other side has to offer." Yet on Hatch’s "side," the tune also remains the same: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts–which economists insist do not create jobs. Take Back the Capitol protesters occupied a number of offices–at least until more members of Congress caught wind of the action and [started hiding out behind locked doors](http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/12/elected_officials_run_and_lock_doors_as_thousands_of_the_unemployed_reach_capital.html), like Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, whose staffers posted a note on the door reading, "Only scheduled appointments will be admitted today." Ryan, meanwhile, has been a major naysayer when it comes to Democratic jobs ideas, blasting President Obama’s jobs bill and insisting that "business-friendly" practices are the only way to add jobs to the economy. Business-friendly, of course, means tax cuts. Still, organizations like the National Employment Law Project insist that job creation isn’t just a matter of money. According to NELP president Christine Owens, there are four factors that are keeping people from going back to work: >"1) the inadequacy of jobs, 2) the exclusion of the unemployed from job openings, 3) the increased use of credit checks to screen candidates and 4) intangible factors including the social isolation, depression and anxiety that often accompany long-term unemployment, as well as the lack of tools, like transportation and computers, necessary to reenter the workforce." On the second and third points, Congress has failed at passing a bill to prevent unemployment discrimination. Neither the Fair Employment Opportunity Act nor Obama’s jobs bill, both of which banned discrimination against the long-term unemployed, have gotten any traction. The Fair Employment Opportunity Act is likely to die in committee, where it’s been since September. Another bill that seems poised to go nowhere is the Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act, a bill we [reported on earlier this year](http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/06/putting_people_directly_to_work_is_too_radical_for_congress.ht) that would have put up to 5 million Americans to work through direct hiring. The bill would have given communities the money to decide where jobs are needed–be it child care, infrastructure, teaching, etc.–and hire accordingly. It too remains in committee, where it’s been since March of this year. The energy at Take Back the Capitol Week is based in real frustration. As we’ve noted over the last year, there are lots of economist-approved job creation ideas out there. And there are bills that would legally protect folks who have been unemployed for months. All of these ideas have crossed the desks of various members of Congress. While some have been introduced–only to die a slow death–none are being taken seriously by both sides.