Today on Blogcritics

WPA 2.0

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Last year, for the first time ever, I contributed money to the campaign of a presidential candidate. Not a lot of money. A handful of contribution amounted to less than two hundred dollars. But thanks to a great many people doing exactly the same thing, and a number of other considerations, that candidate won.

Then I settled back and waited to see how things would go over the next four years. It’s still too early to come to any meaningful judgment, but there was one result of my generosity that was unanticipated and unwelcome, though I really should have seen it coming.

Not a week goes by without several solicitations for money arriving in my e-mailbox. They come from committees raising funds for party members running for the House of Representatives and for the Senate. Activist organizations, many of which I sympathize with, would also like to tap my bank account. Any day now, I expect the committee to reelect the president to start making its financial pleas.

I keep waiting for an email, a legitimate one, that offers me some money.

In 2009, rank and file members of Congress earn $174,000 per year. The Speaker of the House earns $223,500; majority and minority leaders in the House and Senate earn $193,400. They also have health benefits of a kind most Americans can only dream of, and a pension plan that they’ll never have to worry about being looted.

The president earns $400,000 and gets another $50,000 as an expense allowance, and then there’s that house on Pennsylvania Avenue that comes rent-free. The president also gets solid gold perks, and best of all after he leaves office he’s guaranteed to make millions from book deals and speaking fees.

These figures represent economic peaks most citizens will never scale. So it really would be nice if the people we send to Washington found a way to put more money in the pockets of the people they are supposed to represent. They try, of course. There are tax rebates, extended unemployment benefits and such. While any money is welcome, these efforts are really half-measures at best.

Nothing says financial security quite like a steady job with a livable salary.

The last time things were this economically grim (when a monthly job loss report of 11,000 people losing their livelihoods is hailed as good news), President Franklin D. Roosevelt created an entity called the Works Progress Administration. Millions of out-of-work Americans were employed directly by the government to construct roads, dams, public buildings and other useful infrastructure.

The stimulus package passed by Congress earlier this year was supposed to do something similar, but in the face of fears of being called socialists by the Republican right, the money was supposed to be channeled through private contractors. Which was probably better than if no money had been spent, but the stimulus hasn’t worked as quickly as it would have if the middleman had been eliminated.

The current unemployment rate is 10%; the underemployment rate is 17.2%. Fifteen point four million people are looking for work; 11.5 million people are looking for more hours of work.

And yet there are 535 potential job placement agencies going untapped.

If that number looks familiar, yes, it’s the total number of seats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Each and every one of them has staff members to handle what is often called constituent services. These people can help you if you have a disagreement with the IRS, they can get you a guided tour of the Capitol, but mostly they redirect people who have problems that need to be handled on a state or local level or just provide a polite audience to people who call in to gripe.

So why not extend their duties to something a lot more meaningful: helping their boss find jobs for the people he or she represents. Each senator or representative could solicit résumés from constituents looking for work; they could be sent in electronically. The pols could match the job seekers with openings they’ve solicited from both private and public sector employers.

Imagine the joy that would result from a voter getting an email from Washington: We have a job interview for you.

Of course, we are told there are six job-seekers for each available opening right now. That’s a problem, all right. But if each member of Congress were sitting on a huge number of résumés, that would acquaint them up close and personal with the depth and seriousness of the unemployment problem, and exert an overwhelming pressure to come up with a real and prompt solution to the situation.

At the very least, each of them would have to add several staffers to their offices and that would start putting Americans back to work, with livable salaries, health benefits and pensions.

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About Joseph Flynn