House Republicans checked off a major box on their jobs agenda Wednesday when the chamber passed a package of trade deals — an accomplishment the GOP has touted as a central piece of its economic plan.
Unfortunately for Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and his Conference, the glow might be fleeting, in part because of the party’s difficulty selling the rest of its jobs agenda to the public.
Republican leaders have struggled to make the case for the agenda, which is based on deregulation, reductions in spending and tax cuts, thanks to a series of fiscal crises, the esoteric nature of much of their agenda and a sometimes raucous caucus that has thrown them off message.
“We just haven’t made the sale yet,” a Republican lawmaker conceded recently, saying that while the GOP firmly believes in the proposals, voters are not sold.
The lack of public traction is all the more remarkable when compared to their victories this year in shifting the budget debate from how much to spend and where to where to cut spending and how deeply.
By early spring, even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) began adopting tougher deficit reduction rhetoric.
But the public remains deeply skeptical of Republicans on jobs and the economy, with consistent polling showing the public trusts President Barack Obama more for his handling of the economy than Congressional Republicans.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said it is unfair to separate measures such as this week’s air quality bill from the broader agenda, insisting they are linked and will create jobs.
“The American people know we can’t get our economy moving again and create jobs without addressing out-of-control spending in Washington,” Steel said.
Aside from spending, Republicans have passed other parts of their agenda, including numerous deregulation bills, patent reform and Wednesday’s three trade deals.
Republicans have also continued to hit on the jobs theme in their messaging.
“The fact is Republicans have a plan — our Plan for America’s Job Creators — that we outlined back in May, and we have been working since May to enact the ideas outlined in this proposal,” Boehner said Wednesday.
“Our job on behalf of the American people is to find common ground and to do our best for them, and we will continue to do that,” Boehner added.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) agreed. “As the Speaker said, we have enumerated a list of things and indicated that since the president came to the Hill in the beginning of September — we have said over and over again — there are items that we are going to continue to work on and push forward with that will help grow this economy and get people back to work,” he said.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) has organized weekly “job creator” visits to the Capitol over the past month in an effort to put a human face on the regulations the GOP has targeted for repeal.
“This fall, Whip McCarthy has sought to bring in job creators from across the country to Washington in order for everyone to understand the very real negative impact of the Obama administration’s proposed regulatory agenda. These regulations are not merely words in the Federal Register; they have a direct effect on the everyday business decisions of American job creators, large and small,” McCarthy Press Secretary Erica Elliott said Wednesday.
But the reality for Republicans is that circumstances have conspired against them to limit the effectiveness of that message.
Part of the difference between the spending and jobs messaging has been the immediacy.
“We’ve had to focus on other things primarily because of hard and fast deadlines” like the continuing resolution, budget resolution and this summer’s debt ceiling debate, one aide said. Those battles distracted the GOP from its job agenda but also provided focal points for its spending message.
“The CR and the debt limit were must-pass bills [and] all of the oxygen got sucked out of the room,” a second aide said. “Now ... when you look at all of the other things going on at the same time, it’s hard to get people to pay attention.”
Republicans have also been hurt by the fact that much of their work, particularly this fall, does not always have connections to job creation that voters can easily identify. Repealing regulations may be high on the list for business groups but “not everybody assumes that regulations negatively affect jobs. That’s the argument we’re trying to make,” a Republican said.
“Which makes it harder and less obvious that people are talking about jobs,” the Republican added.
A GOP aide also pointed to the work of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction. While Republicans view the committee as having a direct correlation to job creation, “it’s not immediately clear that you’re talking about jobs at the end of the super committee,” the aide said.
Boehner, Cantor and their leadership team have also found themselves hurt by internal politics. For instance, despite pleas from leadership to forgo a partisan fight over a short-term CR last month, the party’s right wing forced the issue, prompting a new round of speculation about a potential government shutdown and a week wasted rehashing the spending fight.
Even this week, with its victory on the free-trade agreements, had a distraction as Cantor scheduled a vote on divisive abortion legislation because it was included in last year’s “Pledge to America.”
One aide pointed to the relative lack of coverage of the free trade-votes, noting that in the past they would have been a predominant theme for weeks.
“If we can’t make FTA’s dominate the news from a message perspective, how are we going to make boiler [regulations] dominate the cycle?” the GOP aide lamented.