Week In Politics: Jobs Numbers And CBO Report

Melissa Block speaks with our regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times about the lackluster January jobs report, the debate surrounding a new report from Congressional Budget Office and the renewed debate over immigration policy.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm joined now by our Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be here.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BLOCK: So we have these disappointing jobs numbers coming in the same week that we saw the Congressional Budget Office estimate the impact of the Affordable Care Act on jobs and I want to talk to you about that. Republicans jumped on the CBO numbers and they said, look, this confirms what we've been saying all along, that the healthcare law is a job killer.

Let's listen to House Speaker John Boehner.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: People will work less and under its employer mandate, wages will be lower. And in the end, the law's going to drive 2.5 million full-time workers out of the economy, just like that, gone.

BLOCK: But, of course, Democrats say that's a total misreading of these numbers. David, let's start with you. Why don't you break this argument down?

BROOKS: Well, Boehner's exaggerating a bit. So it won't drive people out of the labor force. They will have an option - some people are working just 'cause they want the benefits and those people will have an option of leaving the labor force. So I guess on their narrow self-interest, they're probably going to be better off.

Will the economy be better off? And I think the answer there is clearly no. Doug Elmendorf, the head of the CBO, was asked this week, why have the long-time growth projections really tapered down? Why is growth going to be lower over a long period of years? And that's because the labor force is shrinking. Labor force participation rate is now at historic lows and this measure will exacerbate that problem.

So if you believe a healthy economy is an economy in which a lot of people are working and paying taxes, we're going to have a little less of that because of this and also because of much bigger, broader trends.

BLOCK: E.J., what about that argument from Republicans that these numbers help prove that the healthcare law disincentivizes work. In other words, if people earn too much, they're not going to be eligible for subsidies. We heard Paul Ryan call it a poverty trap. He says, fewer people are going to get on the ladder of life. Is he wrong?

DIONNE: Yeah. He's wrong and this sort of totally misreads the report. And Doug Elmendorf didn't say this is going to hurt the economy. In fact, he went out of his way to say that in net, the Affordable Care Act will probably help create jobs partly because all the people who are getting subsidies under the law, will be paying much less for health insurance, which will give them more disposable income.

And what you're talking about here in terms of people leaving the labor force is exactly what you want. You want to end job lock. Job lock is when somebody keeps a job solely because if they give it up, they won't be able to get health insurance elsewhere; many people with preexisting conditions. This allows people to move on in the job market and not have to worry about whether they're going to have health care or not.

It, by the way, would also help families where one parent might want to leave the workforce for awhile to take care of a kid. Are family values to be rejected when you're talking about an increase in a worker's power to deal with the economy? So, on balance, I don't think this was a bad report for the ACA at all, but it was reported, you know, and particularly used by Republicans to say things that just weren't true.

BLOCK: I do wonder whether all of this, these nuances that we're talking about will be completely lost as we head toward midterm elections. I'm thinking about political ads that are to come, David.

BROOKS: Yeah. I'm not sure this report will be the big factor in Obamacare's popularity or unpopularity. It will more have to do with the website. It will more have to do just the idea of government running different decisions. This is so much of a wash, and so complicated. But just on the point of the overall health of the economy - I hate to be against family values - but the fact is, people are not just moving on within the labor force, they're leaving the labor force.

And there are a lot of people who were forced out of the labor force during the recession who are probably going to have a very hard time getting back in. And so this is a long structural problem. Half of this problem is caused by the aging of society, but half of this problem is not caused by it. There are about six million workers who are not in the labor force now who we would expect to be in this point in a recovery.

And so keeping people in the labor force is a job creator and is a prosperity creator.

DIONNE: But that has nothing to do with the ACA, this problem of people leaving the labor force. And I don't think it's half. I think it's closer to a sixth. I agree, you want people who want to be in the labor force to be in the labor force. But I think that's an independent discussion from what the Affordable Care Act does.

BLOCK: I want to move on and talk to you about immigration because there had been some recent signals coming from the House Speaker John Boehner that both parties might be able to reach some kind of deal on immigration reform, but his latest language suggests, wait, not so fast. Not this year. So is the political calculus heading into the midterms that a compromise on immigration will not help Republicans. And if not, why not? David.

BROOKS: They're split. I never really thought that there was going to much of a compromise. There might have been an indication when Boehner stepped out there with these principles that he had his party in line. He did not have his party in line. The party is divided. About 60 percent of Democrats think there should be a path to legalization, only about 34 percent of Republicans think that.

So when your party is that badly split, you're just not going to go into an election year sort of digging that split up and creating this rift within the party. And so they're just going to sort of pass it along another year.

BLOCK: E.J.?

DIONNE: You know, Boehner's comments reminded me of a legislator at a state level who once told a colleague of mine: On the record, yes, off the record, no. Because I think what you're hearing out of both Boehner and Paul Ryan are quite different things publicly and privately. I really think that both Boehner and Paul Ryan would like to pass an immigration bill. Everything I hear says that. But they are under a lot of pressure from the Tea Party. I think the danger is that if they keep saying over and over again publicly, to appease the Tea Party, well, we'd like to do this but we can't trust Obama, when the time comes actually to make a deal, opponents are going to say, well, why do you trust Obama today when you said two months ago that you can't trust him.

So I think this was a setback. I still think there is a possibility of a deal, but I think it's receded a little bit this week.

BLOCK: But David, hasn't the underpinning of the Republican thinking looking forward been we need to reach out to Hispanic voters? We have seen what's happened to us in past elections, and we recognize that we have a problem there.

BROOKS: This is the problem with democracy. If we had a party run by elites, which it should be, they would be far-seeing, they would know what's in the long-term interest of their party, and they would push through change against a minority group, the Tea Party, which doesn't see it that way. But the minority group now has veto power, and so the establishment of the party really has limited control to do what I think most people would agree is in the long-term interest of the party as a whole.

BLOCK: E.J., you want to take a quick anti-elitist stab?

DIONNE: Yeah, I think - you know, the polling suggests that a majority of Republicans believes that you should pass immigration reform. And so what you have here - so democracy is fine. You don't need the elites. You just the majority of the party to be able to express its will. What they're worried about is a minority that might beat them in a primary.

BLOCK: And we'll have to leave it there for this week. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks, have a good weekend.

BROOKS: You, too.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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