"Jobs" is the word on everybody's lips in the nation's capital. But there isn't much work going on when it comes to politicians and jobs.
Already this week, the AFL-CIO has had its Jobs Crisis Forum and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce its annual Jobs for America Summit. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis spoke to a crowd at the Newseum about job creation in a shifting workforce. And there is a continuous stream of speeches and symposia from think tanks and trade groups. At any given moment in Washington, it seems, an academic or business leader is standing behind a podium, lecturing an eager crowd on ideas for job creation. But for all this talk, with Capitol Hill and the White House deadlocked over the fate of the debt ceiling, it seems there is little room for action on the jobs front. And even if some ideas do make their way to the House or Senate floors, they face significant hurdles. Some lack the political popularity to pass a divided Congress. Still others could pose serious environmental risks. But all have been proposed as viable solutions to the country's jobs crisis.
Below are four ways to spark job growth—and the stumbling blocks that could delay or even prevent their implementation.
Take the Cap Off of Trade
Bilateral trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, negotiated over four years ago, are finally near ratification. If passed, the deals would open up markets abroad for U.S. agricultural and manufactured goods. Exactly how many jobs the passage of these deals would create depends on whom you ask. The White House says the Korea deal alone would create 70,000 jobs. The Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, puts that figure at 280,000. The need to support U.S. exports seems all the more important in light of the latest trade figures, which show that in May, the U.S. trade deficit hit its highest point in nearly three years. Chamber President Tom Donohue told the crowd at the organization's jobs summit that the consequences of "dawdling" much longer could be dire: "Immediate jobs are at stake—380,000 of them. That's how many jobs we'll lose to competitors who have cut their own deals with these countries," he said in his opening remarks.
Potential setbacks: Ratification of the trade agreements has bipartisan support, but one major roadblock has been the Obama administration's insistence that Trade Adjustment Assistance be included in the bill. TAA provides job training and benefits to workers adversely affected by imports or overseas labor competition, helping them to find new work. The program was established in 1962 and was expanded by Congress in 2009. But the expansion expired after Republicans won the House in 2010. Congressional Republicans have said that TAA should not be attached to a trade agreement and should be a bill of its own. The U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said this week that he is optimistic that Congress will approve the agreements by the August recess, and it appears that members of Congress are working to iron out their differences. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch this week called for a meeting of congressional leaders to resolve their issues surrounding the trade deals.
Accelerate the Patent Process
After June's abysmal unemployment report, President Obama included patent reform among the measures that Congress could "pass immediately" to spur job growth. "Right now, we can give our entrepreneurs the chance to let their job-creating ideas move to market faster by streamlining our patent process," said the president. Streamlining is clearly necessary; the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office currently has a backlog of over 700,000 patent applications, with an average wait time of over three years for approval. Lawmakers and innovators alike hope that reforming the system from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file system will speed up the process.
Potential setbacks: The Senate and House have both passed similar first-to-file bills, with bipartisan support. However, the two houses' bills will need to be reconciled, as they differ over where the office's fees go. The House bill would subject the patent office to the annual House appropriations process, while the Senate bill would allow the office to keep all of the money it generates. Allowing the office to keep that money may help it to reduce its backlog.
Amp Up the Infrastructure
In addition to patent reform, President Obama has advocated infrastructure spending as a way to help put out-of-work laborers back into jobs. Among the industries that would see the biggest boosts from infrastructure projects, like road- and rail-building, would be construction, which has over two million fewer workers now than prior to the recession. David Shulman, senior economist for UCLA's Anderson Forecast, agrees that infrastructure spending could help create jobs, but he proposes attaching two conditions to that spending, to help speed projects along: one is what he calls "fast-tracking environmental approval." Even a "shovel-ready" project could be substantially delayed in the environmental permitting process, says Shulman, meaning delayed job creation. One other hiring accelerator he recommends is waiving the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that contractors on federally funded contracts pay their laborers no less than the local prevailing wage.