WASHINGTON — Decrying the human toll of the nation’s economic and financial crisis, a group of corporate and labor leaders advising President Barack Obama is calling for sweeping and urgent changes in government policies, from liberalized immigration and less restrictive regulations to a more business friendly tax system and greater spending on infrastructure.
In tackling the nation’s economic crisis and its stubborn 9.1 percent unemployment rate, the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness is putting the names of some of the country’s top corporate CEOs as well as the head of the AFL-CIO behind proposed initiatives and policy overhauls sure to please and irritate Democratic and Republican partisans alike.
The council, headed by GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, will release its 50-page report Tuesday during a meeting with Obama in Pittsburgh. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report Monday night.
Topping the council’s list is a plea for improvements in the nation’s network of roads and bridges, for airport upgrades and modernized ports, and for updated electric grids, water and wastewater systems.
“If Washington can agree on anything, it should be this — and it should be now,” the report states.
Others on the 27-member council include AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AOL co-founder Steve Case and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
The report notes that 1 million construction workers are unemployed and points to the declining state of U.S. infrastructure. It also says that China now has six of the world’s top 10 seaports and that the United States can’t claim a single one of the other four.
It calls on Congress to reauthorize surface transportation legislation instead of simply approving temporary extensions. It proposes additional ways of leveraging private sector investment in public works projects, including a national infrastructure bank that would be seeded with public money to attract private money — a proposal that has bipartisan support.
To speed up projects, the council has recommended a streamlined approval process that prevents delays over environmental reviews or other permits.
Public works projects accelerated
As a start, the Obama administration on Monday announced 14 major public works projects across the country that will receive accelerated environmental and permit reviews. The projects include replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River in New York to a wind generation project in California’s San Bernardino National Forest.
In the midst of an uphill fight with Congress to win approval of his $447 billion jobs bill, Obama is eager to use means that don’t require congressional approval to demonstrate action against the weak economy and an unemployment rate that has not budged in three months. The new review process incorporates the council’s recommendations, but it’s also a nod to Republicans and the construction industry — both have long complained about government bureaucratic delays and regulatory red tape.
Last June, Obama conceded that even public works projects financed by his 2009 economic stimulus faced permitting delays. “Shovel ready was not as shovel ready as we expected,” he said.
The administration’s goal is to complete federal review of those 14 projects within 18 months.
The projects listed by the administration include a highway connector in Provo, Utah; a 14-mile rail transit line in and around Baltimore; an Interstate 95 bridge over the Merrimack River in Massachusetts; a light rail project extension near Los Angeles International Airport; and a series of pending oil and gas applications for wells and pipelines in the Dakota Prairie and Little Missouri National Grasslands in North and South Dakota.
While in Pittsburgh, Obama will tour an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers training center and continue his push for his jobs bill. The Senate has scheduled a vote Tuesday on whether to take up the legislation.
Later, Obama will travel to Orlando, Fla., where he will attend to fundraising events for his presidential campaign and for the Democratic National Committee.
The jobs council’s report, which will be the centerpiece of the president’s meeting with council members, also calls for eased immigration rules for high-skilled foreigners, including automatic work permits or provisional visas to all foreign students after they earn science, technology, engineering or math degrees from U.S. colleges or universities.
“We are sympathetic to the political sensitivities around the topic of immigration reform,” the council report states. “But when it comes to driving job creation and increasing American competitiveness, separating the highly skilled worker component is critical. We therefore call upon Congress to pass reforms aimed directly at allowing the most promising foreign-born entrepreneurs to remain in or relocate to the United States.”
—Reduce regulations and providing incentives for private firms and start-ups to go public. The council said tightened regulations in the aftermath of the speculative bubble in Internet firms in the late 1990s have created unintended consequences, causing a drop in the number of initial public offerings.
—Eliminate capital gains taxes on investments of $25 million or less in a privately held company so long as that investment is held for at least five years.
—Encourage new graduates to take entrepreneurial risks by creating a student loan repayment plan based on income.