President Must Sell a Complicated Jobs Program to a Simpleminded Congress

Mark Trahant

President Barack Obama must sell a complex idea to a Congress that prides itself on simplicity.

This Congress, namely the House Republicans, were elected on the premise that massive budget cuts are essential for this country’s economic survival. This line of thinking argues that these kind of program cuts will certainly cause hardship for many people, but are essential because it will reduce the size and cost of government and that will let the private sector blossom again.

But the president’s task is selling the contrary notion. The idea that the economic order that is the United States is far more complicated. Much more of the economy is—and has been for a long time—essentially a branch of government. In many states, especially those in the West and in rural areas, government employment was the best game in town. But that game is over. Government employment, whether it’s the classroom or in the forest, is declining; since September 2008 local governments shed some 550,000 jobs.

This is where the math is daunting. The United States isn’t even creating enough jobs to keep up with population growth, let alone replace the jobs lost by governments. The private sector would have to more than triple its hiring levels to reduce unemployment. One study pegs the country’s employment deficit at 4.5 million jobs (PDF).

This is where the story gets complicated, why it’s not an easy message like that coming from the House Republicans.

Most everyone agrees that government should be smaller and that the United States should balance its budget and pay down its debt. The question is how and with what kind of complications.

The biggest complication, the one that’s now weighing on the mission of the Congressional Super Committee, is how to cut the budget (and with that, government jobs) while not adding to already high unemployment levels. The president’s answer, the complicated one, is to cut the budget and promote jobs through short-term measures such as reducing the payroll tax, spending more on infrastructure, and additional unemployment benefits. (He asked the Super Committee to cut extra dollars to pay for these initiatives.)

Indian country would benefit from the president’s plan. It would keep more people working in areas of the country where unemployment is probably the highest. It would also give tribal governments time to prepare for the kinds of layoffs that state governments have already started. There needs to be a transition, rather than double-digit budget cuts that go into effect on a moment’s notice. Remember: The federal budget is supposed to start October 1. That will not happen because there are not enough votes for either the Republicans or the Democrats to enact a regular budget.

On Friday, Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the president’s jobs bill would have “real impact” for tribal nations and Native people.

“Over 20,000 Native American-owned small businesses would benefit from tax cuts and 1.5 million Native American workers will benefit from the extension of the payroll tax cut,” Keel said. “We applaud the Act’s specific investment in tribal infrastructure—schools, roads, homes—and our citizens—construction workers, teachers, and veterans—to name just a few. Given the staggering unemployment crisis in Indian Country, for tribal economies the time to act is now and Congress cannot wait another minute.”

But Congress will wait. The Republican leadership plans to send the president’s bill to the regular committees. House leaders wrote the president and suggested the bill be broken up into smaller pieces—so it will be much easier to reject parts of the president’s plan and possibly possibly pass small measures in Congress. And do nothing to solve the jobs problem.

Meanwhile the 12 members of the Super Committee begin their task this week, looking for consensus among a few when that same spirit of compromise cannot be found in the Congress itself.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars, is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




honorindians's picture
Call me simple too. Please tell me why it is called a "Jobs Bill" when half the funds requested are to pay people NOT to work? I have multiple relatives who have quit looking for work because they know that their unemployment benefits are going to be extended. They now joke about it. Also, didn't the President cost Indian country jobs by signing the PACT Act?
zelbe1's picture
Republicans running for President court a tea party-infused GOP electorate: The economy will thrive, they say, if Washington simply gets out of the way. As Rick Perry puts it: "Smaller government, less spending, fewer regulations." Really? Isn't deregulation the route America has been using the past 30 years and where did it get us? It seems the only regulation America wants is applied toward tribal casinos, yet they do not move overseas and open bank accounts around the globe. How is this not communism? How is it that the "good old boys" can pretty much control who they hire outside of the country, which pay rate they offer and whether or not these unskilled workers recieve retirement pensions? What about American workers and American jobs? Why do we not deserve jobs and pensions? The last time I checked, American businesses loathed and reneged on working Americans. It seems Republicans want Americans to be patriotic by treating us like children saying, taxpayers should be seen and not heard, or shut-up, wave your flags and your bibles like good little people while we get fat on stocks in American businesses overseas. And isn't Obama saying the same thing, but with emphasizing workers here on American soil by having more accountability and fair play with jobs? "Ultimately," President Barack Obama tells Congress, "our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help." Americans seem to turn into communist and socialism is okay, when it comes to "controlling and dictating tribal businesses", but they have no problem with American corporations hiring the CIA and military to wipe out smaller countries in the name of capitalism and net profit and even then, the American people offer their dead young and get no returns? How is this good for America whether you are Indian or white and you pay taxes that you have no say in where these taxes end up, like a briefcase in Iraq or Afghanistan for an enemy of the US used as bribery or extortion? Remember, everytime you shop at Wal-Mart, you keep some American CEO fat and employ communist? How is this good for Americans and where do Republicans fight to stop this business as usual outsource?
softbreeze's picture
One of the problems is that where there are jobs to be had, they get shipped overseas for slave labor wages. Most people today are not taught the values of hard work, thrift, and self-reliance like they were 50+ years ago. People used to be able to rely on themselves for what they needed. Hunting, gathering, gardening, tool making, crafts, sewing, canning, the list goes on and on. Today, people are being marketed a life-style of leisure, entertainment, and consumerism. Maybe the best thing Native Americans and mainstream Americans can do is employ the tried and true old values of hard work and self-reliance.
beaver's picture
Trahant, you're too freakin' Americanized. This is Indian Country Today. Your op eds should be published in an American magazine not an Indian outlet. Talk about Indian issues here.
zelbe1's picture
The work ethic is not on the employers side of the fence either. You have employers that would rather hire someone that is devoted to their political and religious zeal over quality workers and competent management. There are alot of employers with high turnover rates because they do not want long term employees. Its not cost effective in terms of the labor cost with raises or promotions, benefits or tenures. Employers would rather hire and fire as many workers in order to fuel the job market, but workers today are not experienced to skilled. Young people today are from the technological era. They have no knowledge of self reliance or independence because parents or grandparents made it easy for them. There is no more bootstrap philosophy. I started working at 12 for two dollars and hour in 1975. I was forced and eventually cared about sharing the bills and money in our household before graduating from high school. I even walked to the laundry mat to wash my own clothes with the money I earned. I am glad my mother forced me to be that way now because I see young people lazy and bossing their parents around calling them names and demanding money for clothes or electronics, what happened?
softbreeze's picture
I agree with you about the employers not having a work ethic either. It's a really bad situation all around. And I have that problem at home myself, my 16 year old daughter thinking she can run the place and talk to me any way she wants. I think part of the problem is the cultural values our kids are exposed to today through the school systems, the media, and out in the mainstream communities. There just aren't good values and ethics being modeled anymore. When I wear traditional clothing or jewelry out in public, she looks completely mortified to be seen with me. I wish I had the answers on how to turn things around, but it seems like we're trying to fight an the ocean tides.
thechief's picture
ok, if anybody is actually depending on Obama's job bill to get a job they have a long wait ahead of themselves. I think Natives know this by now that the US govt doesn't fulfill promises very often. BTW the payroll holiday was a bust because a week after the "payroll holiday" started federal withholding went up almost by the same amount, so it didn't bring any extra money on the bottom line.