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Sen. Jeff Merkley Headshot

Creating Jobs Is Not "Wasteful"

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This week the Senate is debating whether to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a bill we absolutely need to help arrest our economic freefall. Economic policies championed by the Bush Administration largely focused on tax cuts for the big corporations and the wealthiest among us. Not only did these policies fail, they helped create the crisis we now find ourselves in. Yet many in Congress believe we should go down that road yet again in hopes that this time it will be different. Even worse, they are obstructing a recovery package focused on creating jobs, investing in our future economic competitiveness, and providing middle-class tax relief. Indeed, provisions aimed at working Americans are now characterized as "wasteful spending."

It is as if the Bush team set a house on fire and then blocked the fire trucks trying to put that fire out.

On Monday, Republican leaders in the House put out a list of items in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act they deemed to be "wasteful spending." Many of the projects they demonize create jobs, invest in our children and protect our citizens.

One project they're attacking hit close to home. They're calling funding to restore forest health and prevent wildfires in National Forests wasteful. Coming from Southern Oregon, I can tell you firsthand they are dead wrong.

I grew up in Southern Oregon. My father was a sawmill worker and a logger and his job put food on the table. Right now Douglas County, where I was born, has an unemployment rate of 12.8 percent. That's the highest it's been in decades and well above the current national average. Douglas County is home to many of Oregon's timber workers and they need the stability of a good paying job. The money that would be allocated to counties like Douglas to restore forest health and prevent forest fires would put these folks back to work.

Let me explain. Due to federal mismanagement, there are millions of acres of choked and overgrown second-growth forests. These forests are a complete menace. They are diseased and are very little use for strong ecosystems. Moreover, they are a huge fire hazard. Thinning these neglected forests is essential for restoring forest health and generating thousands of rural jobs.

Let me emphasize this: this provision will create thousands of rural jobs. This is a win-win for our rural economies and our ecosystems.

Preventing wildfires is something that desperately needs to be done in any economic condition and now has the added benefit of providing jobs in areas that need them most. How Republicans can call job creation for hardworking millworkers like my dad "wasteful spending" is a mystery to me. To the contrary, like school or bridge repairs or broadband internet access, thinning overgrown forests is the best kind of economic recovery investment: it creates jobs in the short-term while addressing a critical and long-neglected priority. The funding would improve the health of dangerously overgrown second-growth forests, helping protect our forests from disease and preventing wildfires that are devastating to rural communities and enormous sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Funding the protection of our forests isn't the only thing critics are calling wasteful spending. They are attacking funding for Amtrak, which is underfunded, has recently increased ridership, and is a major economic engine of the East Coast in particular. They are attacking funding for public computer centers at community colleges, programs which create jobs now and provide workers with the skills they need to compete in a technology-driven economy. They are even attacking funding for flood reduction projects off of the Mississippi River - just three and a half years after Hurricane Katrina and inadequate levees led to devastation in New Orleans.

Whether motivated by a knee-jerk opposition to anything the government does or a desire to play politics and try to give the new Obama Administration a black eye, the opponents of this bill are opposing job creation and repeating the mistakes that led to the Great Depression. Economists across the political spectrum recognize that government spending is vital to create economic activity in a recession, and many even say the price tag is too low. Whether it's logging to reduce wildfire hazards, teaching children, laying new light rail tracks, or preventing floods along the Mississippi, people will be paid to do these jobs - that's not wasteful spending, that's the whole point.

For eight years, we weren't investing in our economy. We were running up record debt but we weren't creating jobs or bringing families into the middle class. Some in Congress see the past eight years and think we were on the right track, all current evidence to the contrary. I vehemently disagree.

I believe the key to putting our economy back on track is to put Americans back to work by investing in infrastructure and green energy jobs and building a pathway for our children and economy to compete and innovate through education. We can address the short-term crisis and re-build our economic foundation for the future. America voted for a change of direction last November, not more of the same. Republicans should listen to the American people and work in a bi-partisan fashion to help get our country on the road to recovery.

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