Maybe as early as Thursday night, the Senate will take its first vote on one bite-size piece of President Obama’s jobs bill, a $35 billion measure to fund the hiring of 400,000 teachers and a smaller number of cops and firefighters. It will fail. As usual not a single Republican will vote for it, and since a majority in the Senate is now not 51 but 60 because the Republicans filibuster nearly everything, it will fall well short of passage. Some Democrats will oppose it also. How many is an interesting question we’ll get to. But the big issue this sad spectacle highlights is the ever-growing chasm between what the people think and what the Congress does.
The basic facts are these. The public supports this bill. Senate Democratic sources say that of all the individual pieces of the larger jobs bill, this one polled the best by far. Better than payroll tax cuts. That’s why they decided to go with it first. The funding mechanism is also highly popular. It is a 0.5 percent (don’t miss that decimal point!) surtax on dollars earned above $1 million—so, for example, a person whose salary is $1.2 million would pay the extra 0.5 percent only on those dollars above $1 million, for a whopping tax increase of $1,000. I have not seen polling on this specific amount of tax, but surveys constantly show that the generic “millionaire’s tax” wins broad support. Just yesterday, National Journal put it at 68 percent, including 90 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents.
Substantively, there is a need. States face massive budget shortfalls because of the downturn and have made deep cuts to education and public-safety budgets. Last year, schools across the country cut 200,000 jobs. That’s twice the number of public schools in the United States, so these cuts reached everywhere (some places more severely than others, of course). Police departments and emergency services units have been hit hard. Since the bill’s official sponsor is New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, I turned my attention to his state. The police force in Trenton, for example, has laid off 105 officers. Shifts are shorthanded; response times have gotten longer. Someone will die. Probably already has. That most average people won’t notice the cuts in their lives directly doesn’t mean they don’t have impact. The bill would pay for the hiring of 1,000 or more teachers in virtually every state (and a much smaller number of first responders, among whom the cuts haven’t had quite as big an impact).
To Republicans, of course, it’s “more failed stimulus,” and that extra 0.5 percent is of course “class warfare.” Democrats, usually terrified of the tax issue, are in this case more afraid of the former charge. About six have expressed reservations. A lot of it seems political—it’s senators from red states who face reelection in 2012, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana. In fairness, some of these states, with fewer low-income students, will get fewer teachers. If the Democrats don’t get 50 votes for this, it’ll be a setback.
So those are the facts. In an earlier time, in normal times, when legislators used to behave the way legislators are supposed to behave, the minority’s leaders would have brought the price tag down, made the majority and the White House agree to something they wanted—peeling back one of those EPA regulations the Republicans hate—and we’d have had a deal. The minority would never have confronted the very premise. It was a priority of the president, which used to matter, at least sometimes, and more persuasively than that, the minority would have actually paid a bit of attention to those polls showing the American people backed this.
Poof—all that is long gone. The Republican Party’s posture to the American people is this. Your opinion on issues like teachers and taxes doesn’t matter a whit to us. True, if you happened to agree with us, we’d use that to our advantage, but since you don’t, we really don’t care. What does matter though, as far as you people are concerned, is what you do next Election Day. If you put a Republican in the White House, we’ll grow up a little. If you give us the Senate, too, we’ll actually get to work (although God forbid on what). But if you keep that man in the White House, we will block everything he and you want. Everything. And nothing will happen in this town for those next four years. The Republicans can’t say any of this, of course, but they don’t have to. People get it. It just sort of seeps out of them, like oil from a polluted stream.
I have trouble keeping lunch down when I read these jeremiads about how sad and mysterious it is that our institutions of government are failing. It’s not a mystery. One side wants them to fail. And there’s very little the other side can do about it, besides point it out, which the president has started doing—and now he’s the one being divisive! They’ve turned the world inside out.