Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What Congress Can Do About the Economy

No doubt, the economy is the most troubling and important issue in American politics this year. As we listen to the speeches at the two conventions, we heard many expressions of concern and lots of promises to make things better. The real question is, what can government do about the economy? Of the three branches of the federal government, Congress seems to have the best chance of taking action to make a difference, because they design legislation that regulates how business and government services operate and because they oversee both taxes and federal spending. The President can recommend, promote, and decide whether to approve the policies that Congress develops, but in practical terms, it’s legislation that matters.

The difficulty is determining and successfully passing the right kind of legislation. In my conversation this week with Representative Charlie Wilson, he touted the effectiveness of the stimulus program that put a few hundred dollars extra in many of our pockets earlier this year – extra money that was quickly swallowed up by higher prices at the gas pump and catching up on bills. While I’m skeptical about whether this program made much difference, the idea that the federal government could help the economy through programs to stimulate spending makes some sense. Unfortunately, giving someone $300, or even $600, is more like giving someone a fish than teaching him or her to fish. A jobs program to strengthen our infrastructure – something more like the 1930s WPA – might make a bigger difference. It would also cost more.

Wilson also suggested that the mortgage bill passed in July and lifting the ban on the off-shore drilling, which is still under discussion, will address the problems of housing and oil prices. In both cases, we’re seeing an interesting tension between helping consumers and supporting business. It’s not in anyone’s interest, of course, for major businesses to fail, and consumers need direct assistance, as well. Still, both of these issues reflect much larger economic patterns – ways of thinking about investing and finance that emphasize profit over sustainability, our excessive appetite for fuel and other petroleum products, and the gap between our concern about sustainability and how we live day to day. But creating that kind of change in how we think may be beyond Congress. What Wilson and his colleagues can do, what they are trying to do, is develop concrete strategies for addressing specific concerns.

On this week’s show, both Wilson and Representative Tim Ryan discuss specific projects they’re working on to bring new industries and jobs to the region. Most involve hi-tech and energy industries, areas that are predicted to grow nationally and internationally over the next decade. Securing those jobs will require continued investment in education, as well as opportunities for funding new plants, new research, and collaboration across the region.

Will it work? As you look at what’s happening in the region, what do you see as the greatest signs of hope? What obstacles are we facing? Not surprisingly, our congressional representatives are optimistic, promising a better future. I wonder what everyone else thinks.

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