When lawmakers return to Capitol Hill next week, congressional debate is expected to pivot from debt and deficits to the nation's No. 1 concern: jobs.
President Obama will present his plan to boost employment next Thursday before a joint session of Congress. But the Republicans who run the House have their own ideas about what's needed for more jobs — and they've set their sights on what they call job-destroying regulations.
House Republicans got the memo this week from Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The jobs crisis, he told them, would be the focus of their agenda this fall, and votes would be held each week on repealing or stalling government regulations.
Less Regulation = More Jobs?
Cantor said he drew up a list based on a series of hearings held earlier this year; at one of them, Texas Republican Pete Sessions made the GOP's case that less regulation means more jobs, especially when it comes to small businesses.
"One of the fastest ways to put America back to work, Republicans believe, is to limit the regulatory expenses that these small firms have to comply with, simply to satisfy federal government regulations," said Sessions. "Regulatory burdens are hindering job growth."
In his memo, Cantor targets 10 new or proposed regulations. Seven of them take aim at the Environmental Protection Agency — everything from blocking tougher ozone standards to delaying new anti-pollution equipment requirements for power plants, boilers and cement makers.
Susan Eckerly is chief lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, which calls itself "The Voice of Small Business." She says the federation's support for a regulatory rollback is pro-jobs, and not anti-environment.
"Small-business owners want clean, clean air and clean water to run their business, and for their families, just like anybody else," she says.
But Eckerly says small business owners don't want any more rules. "We already have plenty of clean-air rules on the books that seem to work very well. The question we're asking right now: Is it economically feasible in this economy right now to propose even stricter ones?"
The Benefits Of Environmental Rules
But critics of the GOP's push for deregulation insist that the benefits of the EPA's rules far outweigh their costs. Rena Steinzor, who heads the Center for Progressive Reform, says tougher environmental regulations are good not only for the nation's health, but also for the job market.
"We require factories to control pollution by putting scrubbers on smokestacks or cleaning wastewater before they dump it in a river," she says. "And people make that equipment and install that equipment."
More to the point, would jobs be created if Congress rolled back environmental regulations? Eckerly thinks they would.
"I think Washington paying attention to ... the burden of regulation at least sends a signal to small-business owners that they understand that they're hurting out there, and it definitely gives them a signal that maybe creating a job is a good idea," Eckerly says.
Yet in a survey last month of 250 economists by the National Association for Business Economics, 4 out of 5 agreed that the current regulatory environment for American businesses was, in fact, good. In a July survey done by the Wall Street Journal in July, two-thirds of economists said the lack of jobs is due mainly to a lack of sales.
Paul Ashworth, the chief U.S. economist for Capital Economics in Toronto, was one of those surveyed.
"The weakness of the recovery, not just in consumption but across the whole economy — across whole areas of spending — is a big problem," he says. "And that's probably the key reason why firms are reluctant to be more aggressive in hiring workers."
Ashworth, who's considered one of the best forecasters of the U.S. economy, says he doubts rolling back regulations would lead to any dramatic turnaround in hiring. But that does not mean House Republicans won't try.
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