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Congressional Essay: Rep. Keith Ellison

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Aug 05 2011 at 12:54 PM
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By U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison

Republicans argue that our country is broke and therefore we have to “control spending” to fix the deficit.  Their argument is that the way to control spending is to cut the programs and services that have built the strongest economic engine in the world: the American middle class.  Ironically, these programs have a strong track record of creating jobs—and it’s job creation that will ultimately stimulate the sluggish economy.

By addressing problems that Republicans have ignored for decades, we can create millions of good jobs, give taxpayers their money’s worth and help solve the fiscal problems dominating the conversation in Washington.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which I co-chair with Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, is in the midst of our “Speak Out for Good Jobs Now” cross-country tour. We aren’t just addressing the needs of the unemployed and their families—although that would be reason enough for the effort.  The CPC also is trying to change the debate in Washington from the failed trickle-down supply-side approach of the past 10 years to real and sustainable economic revitalization that can only come from implementing progressive policies.

Reducing unemployment should be everyone’s top priority, but, unfortunately, Republicans are pursuing short-term and short-sighted benefits by arguing that employers can squeeze more out of their few remaining employees and defer pay increases. Wealthy taxpayers can continue to enjoy historically low tax rates because, in theory, they are “job creators.”

These are cynical goals that cause long-term economic damage.  Our economy has thrived when we have ensured shared prosperity. However, the American middle class is being devastated by policies that only benefit a tiny minority.  That’s why we should be debating aggressive legislative responses to the jobs emergency.

Let’s review the economic realities for America’s middle class over the past 30 years.  In 1978, when Congress passed the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, proponents called the nation’s 6.3 percent unemployment rate an outrage.  Now, unemployment hovers just above 9 percent and policymakers only recently began sounding the alarm.  The nation has drifted dangerously close to accepting high unemployment as the “new normal.”

The resulting human misery is evident if you spend any time talking with the American public.  While engaging in the Jobs Tour we heard that having a job is about more than money.  A job is a source of pride, a connection to the larger world, and a basis of identity.  Long-term unemployment stresses families, fractures communities, and depresses local economies.  Having a permanent class of unemployed and underemployed individuals corrodes society and robs our nation of its potential.

Four years ago, a bridge over the Mississippi River in my Minnesota district collapsed during rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, over a quarter of America’s bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”  Every year, traffic congestion causes Americans to waste almost 4 billion gallons of gasoline. We can do plenty to make our transportation infrastructure the world’s best again.

The most effective way of addressing our transportation needs, for example, would be to pass a fully-funded, six year highway bill. The last highway bill expired years ago, leaving us to literally patch potholes instead of investing in repairs and improvements our roads and bridges desperately need. By passing a new highway bill we can put people back to work building America, get our economy on track, strengthen our ability to compete in the global economy, and create real assets for taxpayers and future generations. Our economy—not to mention human lives—depends on having a strong transportation infrastructure. The work of the Interstate Highway Act in the 1950s and ‘60s testifies to the job-creating power of these endeavors.

Today, infrastructure means more than roads and bridges. Rural areas continue to lack broadband communications.  Schools, hospitals, and community centers are understaffed. The elderly need assistance to live independently and age in place. There is work enough for everyone who wants a job to have one if we invest in job training, employment search assistance and, where necessary, direct public employment.

House Democrats and President Obama support legislation introduced to create a National Infrastructure Development Bank, which would remove our most critical transportation projects from political wrangling on Capitol Hill and help secure the investments needed to make them a reality.

Some bills already introduced in Congress would offer public employment opportunities. I, for one, have introduced The Put America to Work Act of 2011.  The bill would authorize $350 billion in grants to help state and local governments, as well as Native American Tribes, create as many as 3 million jobs for unemployed and underemployed individuals.

This is the kind of bold action needed in the face of an emergency.  It is the kind of action we in the Progressive Caucus will continue to push for...but in the end, our voices are not the most important.  What will make the jobs crisis the focal point of the country’s political agenda is determined and coordinated action by individuals who will not accept the waste of human potential, economic resources, and social progress as a permanent phenomenon.

We are at a crucial moment in history. Progressives must act to ensure that America implements policies that bolster the middle class and help return us to prosperity. Progressives must remind our nation that America’s reputation is based on the ideals of freedom and economic opportunity.  It is these progressive ideals that comprise the American Dream. 

Representative Ellison (DFL-MN) is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.