08.02.11

How Congress Can Redeem Itself

From a tax amnesty to legalizing online gambling, 10 ways to boost lawmakers’ approval ratings. By Jill Lawrence.

The gut-twisting brinkmanship that Congress inflicted on us and our economy the past few weeks is taking a toll. Lawmakers’ approval rating in one new poll is at an all-time low of 14 percent. But there are ways for Congress to dim memories of the debt ordeal and prove it is a functioning institution.

Both Democrats and Republicans should be interested in this, since they have joint control of the government and joint ownership of the economy. And believe it or not, there are a number of ideas floating around Capitol Hill that have bipartisan backing, or the potential for it.

Some are well on the way to passage; others are at the beginning of their legislative journeys and less certain. All have some degree of bipartisan appeal.

Herewith, 10 opportunities for Congress to get something done:

1. Prod businesses to hire again, especially the long-term unemployed who are being automatically disqualified by some companies adding workers. Offer employers a tax break for hiring people who’ve been out of work for six months or more. Limit the pot of money so they’ll rush to take advantage of the break. Maybe even revive a broadly popular portion of the 2009 stimulus package that subsidized jobs with private firms, nonprofits, and government agencies. It won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Some say legalizing Internet gambling could bring in
$42 billion over 10 years.

2. Grant a one-year amnesty on paying back taxes owed to the federal government. Economist Arthur Laffer says that would increase revenues by $600 million to $800 million over 10 years as tax evaders grabbed the chance to pay up without penalties.

3. Find ways to help state and local governments. Their continuing layoffs were the primary driver of near-stagnant growth of the gross domestic product in the second quarter. Maybe give state and local governments some of the money from a federal tax amnesty. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) suggests giving them a one-year amnesty of their own to collect state taxes owed by cheaters.

4. Pass pending trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. The White House says the agreements will “create or support” 70,000 American jobs. Others aren’t so sure. The sticking point has been help for workers displaced by trade. President Obama and the two parties should work out their differences and move forward.

5. Streamline and modernize the patent process. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says the patent bill will be the first measure the Senate takes up when it returns in September from a recess. The House has already passed the measure, called the America Invents Act. It is expected to create 270,000 jobs.

6. Set up an infrastructure bank to lend private companies money for projects. Supporters, who include President Obama, the AFL-CIO, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, say this would jump-start the moribund construction industry and spark repairs and upgrades to roads, bridges, airports, ports, and broadband service. Democrat John Kerry and Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison have introduced the proposal in the Senate; an initial federal contribution of $10 billion would leverage far larger private investments.

7. Legalize and regulate Internet gambling. This is an idea with some bipartisan support. Backers say it could bring in $42 billion over 10 years. Right now only other countries are benefiting.

8. Extend the current payroll tax cut for workers. It is saving them up to $2,136 each—money that’s going into the economy. The break expires at the end of the year, when it is safe to say the economy will still need the extra shot of consumer spending.

9. Hold China and other trading partners accountable for manipulating currency to get unfair trade advantages. “This would be very beneficial to U.S. businesses and workers,” says Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing. There is bipartisan support for such a move in both the Senate and House, which passed a bill in the last Congress. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, says it is a key part of his party’s jobs plan this year.

10. Move on noncontroversial nominations to courts and executive agencies. There are two dozen judicial nominees awaiting Senate floor votes and another three dozen in earlier stages of the process. More than 100 people nominated to serve in the administration are awaiting confirmation, some of them for months, and dozens are ready for floor votes. Granted, confirming a bunch of nominees won’t create any jobs except the ones they’re waiting to fill. But at least the Senate would demonstrate it can conduct the people’s business.

Congress returns to Washington after Labor Day, as a super-committee of 12 lawmakers plunges back into the deficit-reduction morass. The panel was created on the assumption that Congress doesn’t get anywhere unless it outsources hard decisions, as it did when it created an independent commission to pick which military bases to close.

Think how impressive it would be if the House and Senate proved they could accomplish things the normal way—by debating them, passing them, reconciling their differences and sending the completed products to the White House. Getting back into that routine might well dim the spotlight on Congress—something that after the last few weeks might be welcomed by lawmakers and Americans alike.