Lawmakers cry ‘jobs’ to push through bills

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It was a modest measure to designate several thousand beachfront acres of St. Croix as a National Historic Site, but in the hands of a skilled congressman such as Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, it became yet another jobs bill.

Likewise the Travel Promotion Act, which would create a nonprofit group to push U.S. tourism, has been billed as a job-producing machine by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

It doesn’t stop there - backers last week unveiled a bipartisan bill to create a visa category for entrepreneurs, predicting it “will create jobs in America.”

From immigration to clean energy to expanding the social safety net, there’s no better way to grease the skids for new government programs in Washington nowadays than to declare them job-producing bills, then watch supporters line up and potential opposition crumble.

When Mr. Reid dubbed as a jobs bill a simple $15 billion measure to offer payroll tax breaks and continued highway construction funding, it helped head off a potential Republican filibuster. Likewise, the Trade Promotion Act, which would tout the U.S. as an international tourist destination, sailed through the Senate after it was tagged with the almighty jobs-bill moniker.

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Given an unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent, the focus on jobs is not surprising.

House and Senate lawmakers raised the jobs issue on the chamber floors at least 154 times over the past week, and the jobs issue is more popular in Congress now than it has been in nearly two decades - since the 1991-92 recession.

President Obama joined the jobs chorus Tuesday, touting a $6 billion plan to offer up to $3,000 rebates for energy-efficiency home upgrades as “a common-sense approach that will help jump-start job creation.”

Mr. Obama, who used the word “jobs” 11 times in his 17-minute speech in Savannah, Ga., said the issue is dominating his time right now.

“When it comes to domestic policy, I have no more important a job as president than seeing to it that every American who wants to work and is able to work can find a job - and a job that pays a living wage,” he said.

On Monday, Republicans fought back the ever-broadening definition of what creates jobs. They told Democrats to quit trumpeting a $104 billion bill on the Senate floor as a job creator and argued that it merely continues existing tax breaks and spending that are extended every year.

“The bill before us creates no new jobs, and I challenge my Democratic friends to show us how doing what we always do and what was done last year - extending the R&D tax credit, extending COBRA insurance, extending unemployment benefits - creates jobs,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said saving jobs is just as important as creating them. If Congress allows tax cuts to expire, he said, jobs definitely would be lost.

“If the provisions we are seeking merely to extend were not passed, it would be a job destroyer,” Mr. Baucus said.

Members of both sides of the aisle are joining the chorus.

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, offered an amendment to the $104 billion extenders bill that would redirect unspent money from last year’s $862 billion stimulus bill to let small businesses write off more investments and give them a capital-gains tax cut.

“True job creation doesn’t happen when the government adds jobs; it grows when small businesses are given the incentives to thrive,” he said.

Meanwhile, the top Democrat and top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are sponsoring the immigration bill to increase visas for entrepreneurs.

It’s sometimes tough to see how the jobs math adds up.

The administration has estimated that the $862 billion stimulus act would create up to 3.5 million jobs, which would seem like a bad deal if a $15 billion highway funding extension could create 1 million jobs alone, as Mr. Reid has said on the Senate floor.

Mr. Reid also has said a health care overhaul “would create 400,000 jobs a year,” and that his travel promotion bill “will create tens of thousands of jobs in the service industry.”

“It is a jobs bill, and that is an understatement,” he said.

Among the other job creators being touted, the beachfront historic site in the U.S. Virgin Islands stands out.

Democrats, arguing for the bill in January, said designating the site and spending the $40 million or more to acquire the land will transform it into a popular tourist destination.

“It will create jobs and help ease unemployment on the island,” said Mr. Rahall, the West Virginia Democrat who shepherded the bill through the House.

Dubious Republicans pointed out that the cost of a ticket from the U.S. to the island and the travel time make it unlikely that the new historic site would be a major economic draw.

“Let’s quit spending like crazy. Let’s sell off some of our assets, pay down our debt and let America find jobs again,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican.

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