Few Jobs Bills Slipped Through Capitol Hill Deadlock in 2011

Dec. 1, 2011: Job seekers attend a career fair in Overland Park, Kan.

Dec. 1, 2011: Job seekers attend a career fair in Overland Park, Kan.  (AP)

Despite the urgent appeals out of Washington to tackle the jobs crisis, Congress succeeded in passing more laws naming post offices in 2011 than those aimed at propping up job-seekers and businesses. 

Though what constitutes a jobs bill is not an exact science, only six laws appear to meet the basic definition. Congress passed three trade deals, a patent reform package, a bill to repeal a withholding provision for government contractors and most recently the year-end payroll tax cut extension. 

The latter was the most sweeping of the year's jobs bills. It covered an extension of the payroll tax cut at current rates, an extension of long-term unemployment aid, a provision pertaining to the stalled Keystone pipeline and other smaller measures. 

The extension, however, lasts just two months and leaves it up to lawmakers to negotiate a longer-term package early next year. If the debate follows the pattern of 2011, the process will be laced with partisanship, the outcome uncertain. 

Political deadlock prevented a glut of proposals from both parties from advancing this past year. House Republicans saw much of their legislation stall in the Senate. Democrats on the Hill stood next to no shot of getting their proposals taken up in the GOP-dominated House. 

Lawmakers instead found common ground on the least controversial of proposals -- like naming U.S. Postal Service buildings, which they did 10 times in 2011, in addition to naming other federal buildings. 

The epic debt-ceiling debate and other budgetary battles consumed much of the year's legislative energy. For a brief period, lawmakers talked about using the so-called Super Committee -- the panel established out of the debt-ceiling debate and tasked with reducing the long-term deficit -- to enact jobs-focused reform. The panel broke apart without a deal. 

The persistent deadlock on economic proposals gave way to compromise on a few occasions. Lawmakers were able to work out the kinks this year on three trade deals -- with South Korea, Panama and Colombia -- which leaders of both parties ostensibly supported. 

Congress also passed the "America Invents Act," a law aimed at overhauling the patent process and spurring American innovation. And lawmakers came together to repeal a provision that would withhold 3 percent of payments to government contractors -- a bill that also contained tax credits for companies that hire jobless veterans. 

While the payroll tax deal capped the list, that process was marked by some of the most bitter partisanship of the year. Democrats initially wanted to use a surtax on millionaires to pay for it, then jettisoned the idea. After the Senate struck a deal and passed a scaled-back two-month bill, House Republicans balked. After some prodding, a version of the Senate bill finally passed. 

Asked to describe Congress' record on jobs this year, former economic adviser to Vice President Biden Jared Bernstein said "pretty terrible." 

"The need for such measures has been so great," he said. 

Bernstein, now a senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, chalked the impasse up to three factors. First, he cited recurring GOP political opposition to President Obama's jobs proposals. Second, he said some on the Republican side simply believe government jobs proposals don't work. Third, he said concern about budget deficits has held back Congress, though Bernstein argued that concern is overblown. 

"Temporary spending programs have almost no impact on the longer-term deficit. It's the permanent stuff that kills you -- see Bush tax cuts," he said. 

While touting measures like infrastructure spending and state aid, Bernstein acknowledged the stimulus-style proposals would be difficult politically to push through next year. He said a leftover proposal from the president's American Jobs Act to provide tax relief for employers who expand their payroll -- by hiring and/or giving raises -- could get some traction next year. 

Republicans, though, have pushed a string of jobs bills over the last year, only to see them consigned to the wastebasket of symbolic votes. While Democrats push jobless aid and infrastructure spending, Republicans push for repealing regulations and unleashing the country's domestic energy potential -- and say Democrats are standing in the way. 

In a "year in review" circulated Friday, House Speaker John Boehner's office called on Obama to urge Senate Democrats to approve "more than 25 bipartisan, House-passed jobs bills that are languishing on their doorstep." A House Republican website lists a column of jobs bills that are "stuck in the Senate" despite House approval. 

GOP aspirations on the jobs front are embodied in the economic plans of the Republican presidential candidates. 

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who is surging in Iowa just days before the caucuses, told Fox News on Friday that he would repeal every Obama regulation that costs businesses over $100 million. 

"He's crushing American business, destroying this economy," Santorum said. 

Obama, meanwhile, has tried to move unilaterally. Only pieces of his American Jobs Act made it through Congress, and he's tried to go around Congress through what the White House describes as the "we can't wait" initiative. Through this, the administration has announced new rules to protect workers who provide in-home care for the elderly; $2 billion in support for entrepreneurs; $4 billion in private/public energy upgrades to buildings; and other proposals. 

Congress passed a few other laws this year that were economy-related, though not necessarily jobs bills. Congress repealed a provision from the health care overhaul that would require IRS reporting for payments of $600 or more. It passed temporary extensions of Small Business Act provisions, as well as aid to poor families.