10/02/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

While Jobs Bills Languish, Candidates Prepare Their Debate Zingers

On the eve of the first presidential debate, the focus shouldn't be on who is going to "win," but on whether we are finally going to get a serious debate on jobs and the economy. If not, then the real loser is going to be the American public. But I don't expect much, especially given reports the Romney team believes that "debates are about creating moments" and thus "equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized." Now, a well-placed debate zinger certainly has its place -- but how much more of a "moment" would be created if either candidate instead unleashed a series of proposals to put the twenty million Americans who are unemployed or underemployed back to work? Or, better yet, plans on how to actually pass the many legislative proposals that are currently as stagnant as the employment numbers the bills are meant to improve?

At both the Republican and Democratic conventions, HuffPost hosted panels devoted to what the private and nonprofit sectors could do about the jobs crisis as part of our "Opportunity: What is Working" initiative. As I wrote at the time, our purpose was not to let government off the hook. While there's much the private sector can do, government obviously plays a singular role. Yes, this is a time of extreme polarization and partisan gridlock -- but that should be no excuse. Indeed, not only are there plenty of proposals pending in Congress that would help invigorate the economy and put Americans back to work, many of them are based on broadly shared and non-controversial principles that are, ostensibly at least, supported by both parties.

For instance, just a few weeks ago a bill that would have made it easier for foreigners who graduated from American universities with degrees in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) to get permanent work visas -- and thus be more likely to put down their future-job-creating roots in the United States -- failed in the House. This is not good for job creation, especially when you consider that over the last 15 years, almost a quarter of venture-backed startups were launched by immigrants. The sticking point was that the bill, sponsored by Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, would have gotten rid of the yearly lottery that gives out 55,000 permanent visas. Many Democrats opposed the bill because they wanted to keep the lottery, which brings in immigrants from many countries in Africa and Asia, and instead supported a proposal by their party's Zoe Lofgren of California that would keep the lottery and provide for 50,000 new permanent visas for STEM grads.

The two sides don't seem very far apart. This is the kind of legislative difference that used to be -- and should still be -- bridgeable. As Senator Chuck Schumer said, "There is too broad a consensus in favor of this policy to settle for gridlock." But settle we will, because the issue is apparently off the table for the rest of the year since the remainder of the legislative session is, as the Times put it, "already overloaded." But overloaded with what? With issues that are of more urgency than our five-alarm jobs crisis?

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, a similar bill is pending -- the SMART Job Act -- sponsored by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander and Delaware Democrat Chris Coons. The bill would allow foreigners getting advanced STEM degrees to live in the country for a year after they graduate while they look for a job. If they find one, they'd be eligible for a "STEM green card."

"Many of the best and brightest young minds in the world are educated at American universities, and instead of sending them home after graduation, we should be encouraging them to stay in the U.S. to pursue their innovations and create jobs here," Coons said. "When we send off these graduates to pursue their innovations in India and China, we are literally subsidizing our competitors."

And yet the bill is languishing, even while these very same job-creating STEM graduates are being forced to leave the country and launch their startups elsewhere.

One less obvious, but potentially very meaningful, route to job creation is through service. During the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Obama said service would be "a central cause" of his presidency. But as HuffPost's Amanda Terkel reported in May, that hasn't been the case. In April 2009, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, a bill co-sponsored by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch that would expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 250,000 by 2017. But with funding for only around 82,000 slots so far, the program is on pace to fall badly short of its goal. "Our generation wants to push and dream for something big, and few policies make more sense than allowing idealistic young Americans to serve their country via nursing, teaching, disaster relief, park restoration, and infrastructure repair," said Matthew Segal, co-founder of Our Time, an advocacy group for young people (with which The Huffington Post has a content partnership).

As a result of this underfunding, over the last two years one million applicants have been turned away. The need is there, the public has responded, but the government has not.

In fact, the pipeline is full of legislative proposals that would do what Congress should be doing: help put Americans back to work. Many of these bills would do this while also solving another problem: rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure. This would seem to be a win-win. Only in Washington can a win-win end up losing.

Here's just a partial list of the jobs and infrastructure bills that are currently pending:

S.1333: Layoff Prevention Act of 2011
Sponsor: Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island)
Status: Introduced July 6, 2011
Purpose: "A bill to provide for the treatment and temporary financing of short-time compensation programs."

S.1597: Fix America's Schools Today Act of 2011
Sponsor: Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)
Status: Introduced September 21, 2011
Purpose: "To provide assistance for the modernization, renovation, and repair of elementary and secondary school buildings in public school districts, as well as community colleges, across America in order to support the achievement of improved educational outcomes in those schools, and for other purposes."

H.R.2948: Fix America's Schools Today (FAST) Act of 2011
Sponsor: Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Connecticut)
Status: Introduced September 15, 2011
Purpose: "To provide assistance for the modernization, renovation, and repair of elementary and secondary school buildings in public school districts, as well as community colleges, across America in order to support the achievement of improved educational outcomes in those schools, and for other purposes."

S.2162: Project Rebuild Act
Sponsor: Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island)
Status: Introduced March 6, 2012
Purpose: "A bill to provide for the redevelopment of abandoned and foreclosed-upon properties and for the stabilization of affected neighborhoods, and for other purposes."

S.1769: Rebuild America Jobs Act
Sponsor: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)
Status: Introduced October 31, 2011
Purpose: "A bill to put workers back on the job while rebuilding and modernizing America."

S.652: Building and Upgrading Infrastructure for Long-Term Development
Sponsors: Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Massachusetts), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas)
Status: Introduced March 17, 2011
Purpose: "A bill to facilitate efficient investments and financing of infrastructure projects and new job creation through the establishment of an American Infrastructure Financing Authority (AIFA), to provide for an extension of the exemption from the alternative minimum tax treatment for certain tax-exempt bonds, and for other purposes."

Will any of this come up on Wednesday night? Not likely. Instead, we'll get pre-packaged zingers -- followed by several days of zinger analysis from the media, and declarations of who "won." But time is running out to have a serious debate about the serious jobs crisis we're in. If that doesn't happen, then the loser of all three of these debates will be the American people. Debates might be about creating moments, but the election should be about how we can help create jobs.

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