The value of a ‘do-no-harm’ standard

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) had a terrific idea recently, trying to get the Murray/Hensarling super committee to focus, not only on deficit reduction, but also on job creation. Congressional Republicans, not surprisingly, weren’t fond of the measure.

But it’s not the only Democratic effort to keep the super committee focused, at least a little, on the genuine national crisis. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) spoke with Greg Sargent this morning about a related idea that would at least make the panel aware of the employment impact of their proposals.

Merkley … is calling on both parties to agree to submit every proposal offered by the supercommittee to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, to be evaluated for the impact it will have — on jobs.

He doesn’t want the CBO to evaluate the proposals just for their budgetary impact. Rather, he wants the CBO to reach a conclusion on the impact the proposals will have on unemployment, whether positive, negative, or neutral.

“We need to have a ‘no-harm’ standard,” Merkley told Greg. “At a minimum, people on both sides of the aisle should be able to agree that the proposals do no harm to jobs.”

This seems like such a no-brainer, I’ll look forward to the creativity Republicans will draw upon to oppose it.

Generally, when we talk about CBO reports, we’re talking about scores that let lawmakers know what bills cost and how plans will affect the deficit, if at all. But a CBO score generally only tells part of the story: how a proposal impacts the budget, not how it impacts unemployment.

Merkley wants policymakers to have both pieces of information. As we know all too well, we have two large problems when it comes to fiscal and economic policy: a jobs crisis and a large deficit. Given the larger economic circumstances, addressing one tends to have a negative impact the other — if we invest heavily in creating jobs, the deficit can get worse; if we shrink the deficit in a hurry, the economy and unemployment will suffer.

Congressional Republicans — who, incidentally, created the budget mess during the Bush era when the decided it was “standard practice not to pay for things” — want the super committee focused on the deficit and debt. Merkley simply wants to add a key piece of data to the process: letting committee members know how many jobs will be gained or lost as a result of a proposal.

What’s the rationale against this? Who wants to make the case in support of less information and more ignorance?

If I had to guess, I’d say Republicans will argue that the CBO can’t be trusted to prepare jobs analyses based on the GOP’s “unique” approach to arithmetic. Republicans would probably rather see the analysis done by … oh, I don’t know … the Heritage Foundation or Sean Hannity’s producers.

But Merkley’s idea deserves support and if Republicans oppose it, they should be pressed to explain why independent information on job creation doesn’t matter.

President Obama, through the introduction of the American Jobs Act, has had some success in changing the nature of the larger conversation. The constant preoccupation with the deficit has begun to shift, at least a little, to questions about how (not whether) Congress will emphasize bringing down unemployment. Merkley’s idea is independent of the AJA, but it fits in well with the larger White House frame.

The difference is, Republicans should have a much tougher time opposing Merkley’s measure.