The contrast between who in Congress is serious about job creation and economic recovery and who isn't could hardly be more stark than it is today.
House Republicans have scheduled a vote this afternoon on what is superficially a measure to extend long-term unemployment benefits and continue a break on worker payroll taxes. But Republicans can't help but throw a bunch of toxic tea bags into what would otherwise be a bipartisan bill. They propose cutting billions of dollars from health care reform programs, including a program that helps subsidize premiums for working-class families who purchase health insurance through exchanges. And they want to mandate a rush by the Obama administration to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the face of real concerns that the pipeline will be an environmental catastrophe. Even the unemployment extension provision has been turned into a lump of coal: it would cut 40 weeks off the maximum length of unemployment benefits, now 99 weeks.
Meanwhile, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus today unveiled legislation that looks more like the kind of economic policy and job creation discussion we should be having. Rather than playing political games over band-aids, the Caucus' bill, "Restore the American Dream for the 99% Act," puts on the table the dramatic measures we need in the face of a continuing economic crisis. It is a direct answer to the economic anger at the heart of the Occupy movement.
At a news conference today, Progressive Caucus leaders Reps. Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, said that their bill would create more than 5 million jobs over the next two years and reduces the budget deficit by over $2 trillion over the next 10 years. The bill builds on the ideas that were included in the Caucus' much-heralded People's Budget released earlier this year.
The legislation would authorize the creation of several "corps" that will quickly offer jobs to unemployed people doing such essential work as repairing school buildings, maintaining public parks, completing neighborhood energy efficiency and conservation projects, and providing health care and other public services in underserved areas. One of the corps would be devoted to rehiring teachers and first responders laid off by cash-strapped state and local governments.
The legislation would also mandate that 75 percent of the goods and services the federal government buys be made in America, toughen initiatives designed to help small businesses get federal contracts, allocate $50 billion for highway, public transportation, and electrical grid improvement projects, and authorize the creation of an infrastructure bank. To counter such problems as the currency manipulation that artificially drives down the cost of Chinese imports, the legislation would mandate a countervailing tariff. It would also include language protecting the long-term unemployed and wounded veterans from hiring discrimination.
Included in the bill are provisions that would raise $800 billion through a surcharge on millionaires, ending tax subsidies for fossil fuel companies, and imposing a small excise tax on the sale of stocks and bonds -- a step that would finally get Wall Street to pay the repair bill for at least some of the damage its malfeasance did to the economy. It would extract budget savings through such steps as ending the war in Afghanistan as well as cutting close to $200 billion from the defense budget through such measures as eliminating unneeded weapons systems and cutting in half the military forces now based in Europe.
Also, the legislation tackles some of the unfinished business of health care reform: it creates a public health insurance option that would be available through health care exchanges, which is expected to drive down federal health care spending by almost $90 billion. Allowing Medicare to bargain with pharmaceutical companies to get bulk discounts, a move that Republicans and some drug-company-funded Democrats have blocked in the past, would help save more than $150 billion. Also, the legislation restores increases in Medicaid aid to the states that were put in place by the Recovery Act so that states would not have to lay off workers to avoid cutting back on health care to lower-income residents.
To preserve Social Security benefits and the financial integrity of the Social Security trust fund, the legislation would eliminate the $106,800 cap on earnings taxed by Social Security.
This legislation helps set up the debate we should be having about the direction of the country in the coming months. The Republicans, of course, would like the country focused on its dissatisfaction with an unemployment rate well above 8 percent as President Obama enters the fourth year of his presidency. They do not want the country to count the number of proposals they rejected that would have lifted the economy, and the fortunes of working-class and middle-class households, had it not been for their unrelenting obstruction. They certainly don't want people to count the job-killing toll of the Republican proposals, which can be seen in states controlled by Republican governors and legislatures.
The Progressive Caucus legislation offers a different choice. We can put people to work today building the foundation of the economy of the future, or allow the stubborn subservience of congressional conservatives to the 1 percent -- the right-wing billionaires and millionaires and the big corporations that boss Washington around -- to cause more economic pain, widen the gulf between the very wealthy and struggling workers, and fuel more Occupy movements.