The Lousy Economy: Washington’s Partisan Failure

Robert Borosage

The U.S. economy contracted in the first three months of 2014, according to revised figures issued by the Commerce Department, down a “seasonally adjusted, annual rate” of 1 percent. With the economy expected to bounce back in the second quarter – April to June – the decline received little attention, and was widely blamed on the severe winter weather that blanketed the Midwest.

But think about that. We’re nearing the end of the fifth year of the official “recovery,” and the economy is growing so slowly that a few weeks of lousy weather pushed it into decline. This isn’t about extreme weather. It is about a disgraceful failure of Washington to act.

At Republican campaign committee headquarters, champagne bottles surely were popped for merry celebration at the news. Their strategy of obstructing any measure that would put people back to work has worked. More than 20 million people are in need of full-time work. Wages aren’t keeping up with the costs of necessities. Two-thirds of the people sensibly think the economy is on the wrong track. And Republican prospects to capture the majority of the Senate and consolidate their hold on the House look increasingly bright.

“Where are the jobs?” House Speaker John Boehner repeats. Democrats, Republicans will charge, are waging war on women, millennials and people of color, all of whom suffer under this lousy economy. Republicans will run railing against the misery that their obstruction has helped to cause.

Their cynical strategy is aided and abetted by the White House and Democratic legislators. They have failed to force visible and prolonged battles over jobs measures, which at least would expose how Republicans are standing in the way.

Democrats seem to be hoping for a “recovery summer,” repeating the White House folly from 2010. The first quarter decline is discounted as due to the weather. Yet, without the deep freeze in the Midwest, growth might have reached all of 1.5 percent, barely showing a pulse. But no worry, the White House assures, growth in April to June looks to be reviving, possibly at 3 or 4 percent. A more robust recovery is ever just around the corner.

As we near the end of the fifth year of the official “recovery,” most Americans have seen little sign of it. The stock market is setting new records; CEO salaries are up; corporate profits are doing fine. But Americans are dealing with stagnant pay, lousy jobs and young people moving back home because they can’t afford anything else.

Companies are using profits to buy back stocks, or merge and purge workers. Exports won’t take off, as Europe continues to stagnate and China slows. States have begun to spend more, but the federal budget cuts don’t help. Americans are getting priced out of housing. Where is the boost going to come from? Will Americans take on more debt to increase consumer spending? That hope is the basis of recovery summer?

The current stale, male and pale Republican Party is not an attractive alternative to most Americans. They get it. In Republican trickle down economics, as Texas Populist Jim Hightower puts it, workaday Americans are the hydrant. But the lousy economy, the sense that Washington doesn’t care, the failure of hope will cause a lot of people to check out and stay home.

Democrats are increasingly turning to populism to fill this void. The Senate is rolling out its “fair shot” agenda – raise the minimum wage, pay equity, paid family leave. Senate leaders will push the Elizabeth Warren initiative to let Americans refinance student loans to 3.8 percent, making a difference to millions of young and not so young workers burdened by their student debts. These good reforms help Americans understand who is on their side.

But Republicans have every reason to think their obstruction strategy is working. Americans don’t see anyone fighting for a plan to get the economy moving. And even popular populist measures may not be enough to counter that grim reality.

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