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.