What Today’s So-So Jobs Report Should Mean for Washington Battles

First, a moment of positivity: today’s jobs report is good because it means 155,000 more people are working than were a month ago. Compared to, say, December of 2008, when we lost about 800,000 jobs, that’s a nice change.

Unfortunately, we’re not adding jobs fast enough to get ourselves back to a healthy level. An unemployment rate of 7.8% is still frustratingly high—and even more frustrating because a lot of members of Congress seem determined to undermine the progress we’ve made. We’re still losing public sector jobs, and in December alone we lost about 11,000 teachers, but the talk in Congress is focused on cutting spending rather than investing in jobs.

At the end of February, the delayed “sequester” cuts are set to kick in. These blunt-instrument cuts are the result of a stupid deal set up in 2011, and they are going to hurt a lot of programs people depend on. In addition, Congressional Republicans are again promising to have a big fight over cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—cuts they both insist are necessary and refuse to actually propose themselves. They lost this fight in the 2012 election, but Sen. Lindsay Graham is just one of the many who disregards that outcome and insists we have to keep having that argument until he wins.

Severe cuts to the spending power of vulnerable people on fixed incomes are a bad idea at any time, but especially when the economy is still struggling to recover from a huge crisis of consumer spending power. If congressional Republicans got their wish, we’d see cuts to Social Security and Medicare along with job-killing hits to schools, infrastructure and other federal programs.

As AFL-CIO President Trumka put it:

Almost nothing would be more foolish right now than a trillion dollars of austerity, as the sequester would require, or the Fix the Debt CEO plan to undermine America’s already threadbare social safety net. As the European experience shows, austerity kills recoveries.

What would be even worse is if the debt ceiling becomes a negotiating chip here. In an op-ed today, Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, announced his intention to use a debt-ceiling threat as a mechanism to force through unpopular cuts he couldn’t otherwise get. As Matt Yglesias notes, this is dishonest and irresponsible—a debt-ceiling crisis would be genuinely chaotic and destructive. This is equivalent to threatening to burn the house down because you don’t like the new furniture.

Describing this as a potential “hostage crisis” isn’t particularly unfair; indeed, it’s the theory behind the strategy. “You can’t take a hostage you aren’t prepared to shoot,” the Wall Street Journal told Republicans in an editorial aimed at encouraging them to turn the issue into a showdown. Sen. Mitch McConnell himself called the debt ceiling increase “a hostage that’s worth ransoming” in 2011. Brian Beutler is exactly correct when he puts it this way:

It’s not about rescuing the economy from policies that are inhibiting growth right now. It’s about a nihilistic willingness to destroy actual growth in order to make progress on longer-term ideological goals.

In reality, nobody who understands the issue wants a debt-ceiling crisis. It’s not a “negotiating chip,” because everyone knows it has to be increased. Cornyn is just lying to his readers in order to convince them that it would be acceptable. A threat to make the country into a quasi-failed state in order to get concessions you couldn’t win in an election should be a much bigger deal than it is.

So there you have it: our economy is seeing a little bit of growth, even in the face of a determined effort by Congressional Republicans to put recovery at risk. But we have to stay vigilant to make sure they don’t manage to do even more damage over the coming months.