Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon has just proposed a stunningly good idea: for all legislation which emerges from the joint committee charged with lowering the deficit, direct the congressional "scoring" referee not only to provide the numbers for the impact on the federal budget, but also to provide data on the impact on the unemployment rate and the jobs situation. This is such an excellent idea, both on its merits and politically, that it should immediately be supported by all Democrats. Because it would force the public debate to cover the entire scope of the proposals being offered up, and it would do so by providing the data the public most cares about right now: how will this create or destroy jobs?
The "Plum Line" column over at the Washington Post broke this story yesterday.
Merkley is right. Americans should be presented with this data, and the CBO should provide it to further the public debate. Because if Americans are presented with a choice between, for instance (I should point out that these numbers are mere examples and bear no relation to any existing proposal): "cutting a trillion dollars out of the budget" and "cutting a trillion dollars out of the budget, but by doing so causing unemployment to rise by 1.8 percent," it is likely the public would feel differently about such proposals.
Republicans, of course, are going to resist the idea of getting CBO to simultaneously score both budgetary impacts and employment impacts to proposed legislation. There's a simple reason for this: it's a losing proposition for them politically. Any Republican idea which was shown to destroy jobs is going to be a lot less popular to the public than if that fact weren't known ahead of time. Republicans know that some of their budget-cutting ideas are going to show up as negatives on the scale of job creation, so they therefore have absolutely no incentive to provide these numbers to the public.
But just because Republicans aren't going to like it doesn't mean this isn't still a great idea. The Republicans have conned the inside-the-Beltway chattering class into believing that the American public is more concerned with cutting deficits than with creating jobs and improving the economy -- even though poll after poll shows exactly the opposite. The American public (those outside the Beltway) consistently say that jobs and the economy is a much bigger concern to them right now than cutting budgets.
President Obama set up the argument in his recent speech to Congress. It's an easy argument to make, because it uses the Republican position as a springboard: "We can't afford to do everything right now." Since we can't afford to do everything we'd like to do, we must prioritize. Which is more important -- improving the economy and getting unemployment down, or cutting the budget deficit? That is the key question, the key moral argument, and the key for Democrats to frame the issue correctly to the public.
All Merkley is calling for is for the CBO to present these choices intelligently to the public at large. The CBO is an independent and nonpartisan number-crunching agency. How could any politician be against providing such data to the public, when jobs and the economy are the public's biggest concerns right now?
The Democratic argument for Merkley's proposal is an easy one to make, and can be boiled down to a simple challenge: "Why are Republicans afraid of letting the public know the impacts their proposals will have on the jobs situation? What are they trying to hide?" The American spirit of fairness and transparency is solidly on the Democratic side of the question. There is simply no argument to make for the CBO not to provide these numbers -- other than: "We don't want the American public to know the impact on jobs our plans will have, because we're afraid they won't support the ideas if they had this information."
This is a good fight for the Democrats to have, politically. They'd be arguing on the side of "Let the public know!" while the Republicans were left with "Keep the people in the dark!" That is a winning argument for any politician to make, on just about any issue in American politics.
The CBO will provide jobs analyses to any member of Congress who requests them, on any piece of legislation. But it doesn't promise that doing so will be a priority. What this means is that the CBO could score a bill on financial impact alone, release the numbers, and then go back and score the bill on the jobs impact much much later -- too late for it to influence the debate in any way. The only way they'll speed up the process is if Congress instructs them to, which is what Merkley is calling for. But, politically, if Democrats hammered on the issue with every discussion of the joint committee's progress on budget-cutting, it would put the idea front-and-center in the bigger debate. If, for every proposed idea, Democrats would reply with "Well, I'm waiting to see the CBO numbers on how many jobs this will create or destroy before I can support it," then it would put the pressure on both the Republicans and the CBO to see that those numbers were made available in a timely manner.
Senator Merkley is right, and he should be supported by every other Democrat in Congress. This issue should get a major push by all Democrats, up to and including the president. Obama has done a lot to shift the conversation to jobs and the economy, and he can follow up by demanding that Congress address the jobs impact of all budget-cutting ideas. The American people deserve this information when such legislation is proposed. There is simply no reason why this information shouldn't routinely be provided by the CBO -- at the same speed as the fiscal impacts. It is about as perfect a political issue as can be imagined for the Democrats to champion at the present time, in fact.
Democrats have a choice to make. They can either get behind Merkley's idea with the full force of their political will, or they can continue to allow Republicans to operate on a playing field of their own choosing and their own definition. President Obama is trying to redefine the Republican obsession with budget-cutting to a debate on choices, and on jobs. Democrats need to beat the drum of "Yes, but how will this affect the jobs picture?" on pretty much everything the Republicans propose at this point. Getting behind Merkley's proposal would be a giant step in this direction, and would force the Republicans into the indefensible position of "the public doesn't need to know that." Which is why Merkley's idea is such a stunningly good one.
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