It’s time for an honest discussion on the direction of the economy

A day before the president’s visit to Ohio a week and a half ago, a headline in my local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, caught my eye: “Obama launches push to sell Americans on stimulus merits.”

There has been much debate over the effectiveness of last year’s stimulus bill; that debate will probably continue for many more months. But selling the stimulus is not what elected officials and policymakers need to be spending time on. We’ve all heard the common phrase that in politics, “perception is reality.”  If Washington, D.C., is going to have any hand in aiding this country’s recovery, we need to spend a little less time worrying about the perception and a little more focusing on the reality.  

Ohio’s unemployment rate has been stuck at more than 10 percent for a year and a half. Since passage of the stimulus, approximately 127,000 jobs have been lost in Ohio — nearly the number the administration claimed would be created.  If there’s a recovery under way, many Ohioans aren’t feeling it. And they’re not alone. Forty-eight of 50 states have less jobs now than when the stimulus bill was signed into law.  

Earlier this year, I met with a business owner in my district. Ten years ago, he and his wife borrowed all the money they could from friends and relatives, mortgaged their house to the hilt and started a business in their garage. Today, that business employs 300 people.  Amazingly, even with the impact the economic downturn has had in Ohio, this business owner told me he was in a position to grow and hire more people. 

But he isn’t going to. He’s fearful of the host of new mandates, higher taxes and aggressive regulatory burdens he sees coming from Washington. While some of the policies that have already been considered by this Congress are bad enough, the uncertainly of what’s ahead is even worse.   

And it’s not just small businesses in Central Ohio which feel this anxiety.  Last week, groups that represent many of America’s largest and most successful companies — companies that employ millions of Americans — communicated similar concerns to Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag.  Specifically, the Chairmen of the Business Roundtable and The Business Council wrote a number of government initiatives that have either already been taken or are on the horizon could, “…help defeat the objectives we all share — reducing unemployment, improving the competitiveness of U.S. companies and creating an environment that fosters long-term economic growth.”

During his 1986 State of the Union Address, President Ronald Reagan said, “[G]overnment’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

I think Reagan’s words from nearly 25 years ago echo in the minds of this country’s potential job creators today. Businesses (large domestic employers, American businesses trying to compete around the globe, individual entrepreneurs, and small business owners, the driving force of our economy) find themselves under incredible pressure. A good portion of it is certainly a result of the global recession we find ourselves working to claw our way out of. But another, more discouraging source of that pressure is what they see coming out of Washington, D.C., in the form of more taxes, more spending, more entitlements, more debt and more regulation. That’s the reality. 

If you can believe it, the business owner who told me he could hire more people but wasn’t going to had even worse news. He also told me that if faced with the choice to start a business today, the same choice he faced ten years ago, he wouldn’t make the same decision. The risk today is far greater than the reward. 

This is not what our economy needs. We need people to be confident that the rules of the game won’t be changed mid-stream and to know that if they work hard they will be rewarded. That’s what helps to lay a foundation for growth where would-be entrepreneurs and job creators are willing to take a chance at success. 

Sticking to the political playbook and repeating old rhetoric won’t make our small businesses more competitive here at home, won’t help American companies with worldwide operations compete against their foreign counterparts and won’t encourage would-be entrepreneurs and innovators to take the leap.

We need to have an honest discussion in Congress and with the American people. A discussion about policies that are going to provide certainty and incentives to succeed for our small businesses and entrepreneurs, help keep American businesses competitive, both at home and abroad, and encourage long-term economic growth and permanent job gains. The sooner we start, the sooner we’ll be on the road to true recovery.     

Tiberi is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.