WASHINGTON – When Congress gets back to work after Labor Day it will have the chance to achieve something that has largely eluded it for the entire year, passing legislation that might actually create jobs.
With the battering debate over the debt ceiling over, the stage is set for Congress to approve and President Barack Obama to sign three big free-trade agreements and the most significant overhaul of the patent system in 60 years.
Legislative hitches can never be discounted, but both the trade and patent measures enjoy bipartisan support from lawmakers eager to show they can make a difference in improving the feeble job market.
It's hard to find much evidence of relevance so far this year. As Congress left for its August recess, the president had signed only 27 bills into law since this session opened in January. Some, such as the just-passed bill to raise the debt ceiling and a bill to extend Patriot Act provisions, were important. But most were more routine — five bills to name post offices or federal buildings, three to name members of the Smithsonian board of regents and four to keep federal airport operations running.
Arguably, not one contributed to job growth. Republicans say that spending cuts in a 2011 budget act and the debt act will stimulate the private sector. Democrats retort that reductions in federal investment in infrastructure and new technology are job killers.
The two parties were quick to blame each other when the Labor Department announced Friday that the unemployment rate in July was 9.1 percent, barely changed from the previous month.
Obama has previously called on Congress to put aside the blame game long enough to act on the patent and trade bills. "There are also things that Congress could do right now that will help create good jobs. Right now, Congress can send me a bill that would make it easier for entrepreneurs to patent a new product or idea," he said at a June 29 news conference.
"Right now," he added, "Congress can advance a set of trade agreements that would allow American businesses to sell more of their goods and services to countries in Asia and South America."
The patent bill will be at the top of the agenda when the Senate reconvenes in September. The first major overhaul of the patent system since 1952 has already passed both the Senate and the House by wide margins, and the Senate will be trying to agree to the similar House version and send it to the president for his signature.
The main intent of the patent bill is to streamline a system that has resulted in a backlog of 1.2 million pending patents and ensure that the Patent and Trademark Office has adequate funding. It also would switch the United States from the "first-to-invent" system now in effect to the "first-to file" system for patent applications used by all other industrialized countries.
Supporters say the first-to-file system creates certainty about patent ownership and reduce costly litigation. Job creation will be a happy byproduct, they predict. Patent reform will be a boost to intellectual property industries that account for more than a half of U.S. exports, said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "These industries also provide millions of Americans with well-paying jobs."
Smith's Democratic partner in the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, agreed: "This is a jobs bill when our economy needs it most."
The trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama could have an even more direct impact on jobs. The administration says that ratification of the Korea agreement alone could mean 70,000 new jobs from increased exports, with more jobs possible from opening up Korea's service market to American firms.
The three deals will increase exports by $13 billion annually "and create jobs here at home, and that's why we've been fighting so hard to get it done," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. Some labor groups disagree, saying free trade agreements make it easier for U.S. companies to ship jobs overseas.
The free trade agreements were all signed during the George W. Bush administration but have been in political limbo as the Obama administration negotiated to get more concessions from the Koreans on U.S. auto sales and compel Colombia to improve its labor rights record.
More recently, the White House has held up sending the deals to Congress, insisting that votes on the trade bills be accompanied by renewal of economic stimulus act provisions that expanded a program that helps workers displaced by foreign competition. Senate leaders announced this past week that they had agreed on a course for passing a compromise version of the worker aid bill and the trade measures this fall.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House, where the GOP majority is not friendly to the worker aid bill but strongly supports the free trade agreements, is ready to go along.
House Republicans contend they have been aggressive in promoting job growth since taking control in January, pointing to numerous House-passed bills to reduce federal regulations, trim the budgets of federal agencies and encourage domestic energy production. All those bills have died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
House Democrats have unrolled their own "make it in America" jobs agenda that includes creation of a national manufacturing strategy and investments in clean energy technology, education and infrastructure. These are ideas that make little headway with small government, cost-cutting Republicans. The one common denominator — Democrats endorsed patent reform.