The Economy People are hurting

Posted: September 07, 2008

The hoopla of national political conventions has subsided, and Congress returns to work tomorrow with a weak economy demanding lawmakers' attention.

With unemployment and inflation rising, the danger is that Congress instead will get sidetracked by election-year political stunts. Former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led a counterproductive government shutdown in the mid-1990s, is at it again.

Backed by a well-funded advocacy group that he founded, Gingrich is agitating for another shutdown of the federal government, this time over oil drilling - the subject of his new book.

House Republicans, who view exploiting high gasoline prices as their last best hope to reverse election losses, are threatening to block an annual appropriations bill if it doesn't end a ban on offshore oil drilling. If the parties can't agree by Sept. 30, the government could run out of money to operate.

More domestic oil production is needed, as are more sources of alternative, renewable energy. But shutting down the government and putting thousands of people out of work would be a reckless way to make an election-year point. Such a ploy might help Gingrich sell more books, or mount a presidential bid someday, but even a modest impact on gasoline prices from more offshore drilling would be years away.

There are other immediate problems requiring congressional action. The unemployment rate in August jumped to a five-year high of 6.1 percent, reflecting 605,000 jobs lost so far this year. Crises in the housing, credit and financial industries continue to take their toll on the economy and financial markets.

A second package from Congress this year to stimulate the economy would ease the effects of the downturn on the people who are hit hardest. When states receive less tax revenue in a weak economy, they lay off workers, cut services and reduce benefits.

A temporary increase in federal aid to state governments would help to prevent more budget cuts or tax increases. A temporary boost in food stamps would also help the neediest families, and the money would be put back into the economy quickly.

Another priority for lawmakers should be to provide an increase in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. Before the August recess, the Senate considered a bill to boost LIHEAP spending by $2.5 billion, but President Bush threatened a veto.

LIHEAP helps 5.8 million low-income households pay home-heating bills to avoid utility shutoffs. This winter, heating bills for the average LIHEAP recipient are expected to be 40 percent higher than last winter. Without the extra funding, state LIHEAP programs will be forced to reduce the number of households receiving aid, or cut the amount given to recipients.

The president argues that this extra $2.5 billion would add to the deficit. Meanwhile, Washington has been spending about $12 billion per month in Iraq. The federal government isn't going broke by helping low-income seniors heat their homes.

Congress should hold the election-year posturing and get back to work on helping people grapple with their household budgets in the weeks ahead.

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