To win votes, the GOP should focus on jobs, not immigration
One of the most curious political developments in recent memory is House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to press for a new Republican immigration bill before addressing America’s bona fide jobs crisis. Immigration reform is important. Many conservatives are convinced that unless the GOP deals with the challenges facing unauthorized immigrants who have been living and working in the country for years, it will never build trust with voters with strong ties to immigrant communities. This is no small thing in a country in which 13 percent of the population is foreign-born and another 11 percent of the population has at least one foreign-born parent.
But it’s not at all clear that passing an immigration bill will suddenly lead immigrant voters and their children to flock to the GOP, not least because it is all but guaranteed that Democrats will attack the GOP for not going far enough. If Republicans offer unauthorized immigrants legal status without citizenship, Democrats will accuse them of creating millions of second-class non-citizens. And if, as seems likely, Boehner’s immigration push will lead to a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration, it will divide the right, and for good reason.
If Republicans want to build trust with voters — foreign-born and otherwise — they ought to instead pass a serious jobs bill. In his State of the Union address, President Obama made it clear that he will use raising the federal minimum wage as a wedge issue to put GOP lawmakers on the back foot, and there is at least some reason to believe that he will succeed. A Gallup survey from late last year found that 58 percent of Republicans favored a substantial minimum wage hike, a fact that has greatly complicated conservative efforts to beat back a policy they fear will dampen future job growth. The perfect populist issue has fallen into the president’s lap, and a GOP immigration reform push will do nothing to dull its effectiveness.
The president and his allies are also stepping up the pressure on extending long-term unemployment benefits. House Republicans insist that they are open to the idea of an extension if the extension is paid for through future budget cuts. That nuance has been lost as Democrats campaign on GOP indifference to the fate of jobless Americans. The irony is not lost on conservatives who believe, and are right to believe, that the Obama administration is at least partly responsible for the plight of the long-term unemployed.
The overall number of unemployed workers in the U.S. is 10.4 million. Though some share of this unemployment is frictional — the inevitable to-ing and fro-ing of workers that you’ll see in even the healthiest economic environment — much of it is not. Across the country, there are 3.8 million Americans who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. Though this number has declined since December of last year, when it was 4.7 million, it remains scandalously high. And the ravages of long-term unemployment ripple out beyond the 3.8 million or so who are directly impacted, to their extended families and even their neighbors. Democrats are increasingly turning to legalistic maneuvers to address this problem. Apart from extending long-term unemployment benefits, the Obama administration wants to ban firms from discriminating against the long-term unemployed, a policy that threatens to generate more lawsuits than job growth. Yet Democrats have benefited from the fact that the GOP has failed to unite around a jobs agenda of its own.
That seems to be changing. Patrick Brennan of National Review reports that South Dakota Sen. John Thune is rallying support for a package of proposals designed to reduce long-term unemployment. Among other things, Thune’s proposal would create strong incentives for employers to hire the long-term unemployed (by, for example, exempting them from having to pay the employer side of payroll taxes for these workers for six months) and offer relocation loans to unemployed workers looking to move from regions with high unemployment to regions with low unemployment. This would give workers in Rhode Island, a state plagued by a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, the means to move to North Dakota, where the unemployment rate is 2.6 percent.
And there are many other reforms that could be part of a larger GOP jobs package. Michael R. Strain, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a leading conservative thinker on the jobs crisis, backs a clever approach to fixing unemployment benefits. Rather than oppose an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, Strain has called for tying any extension to a larger reform of unemployment insurance that would shift the system from issuing weekly checks to jobless workers to giving them lump-sum payments paid every month. This would create a modest re-employment bonus for workers who find jobs at the beginning of a particular month.
Strain has also called for lowering the minimum wage for long-term unemployed workers for at least the first six months they are on the job, as an incentive for employers to hire them. If the GOP eventually acquiesces to a federal minimum wage increase, as seems well within the realm of possibility, this carve-out would help ensure that the long-term unemployed aren’t locked out of the low end of the labor market. At the same time, he has suggested that these workers be eligible for wage subsidies designed to make work more attractive.
A new Republican jobs bill focused on the long-term unemployed has the potential to unite GOP lawmakers and demonstrate that the party hasn’t forgotten the Americans left behind by our lackluster recovery. It should take precedent over a Republican immigration bill, which would divide conservatives — and strengthen the president’s hand.
PHOTO: U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) (R) hold a news conference with unemployed Americans to highlight their political divide with Republicans over unemployment insurance legislation, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, January 16, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst