WASHINGTON -- The unemployment crisis has all but faded away in the hallowed halls of Congress, where the influential players are preoccupied with outmaneuvering their opponents in deficit-reduction negotiations. Nearly 14 million Americans are still without jobs by the official count -- closer to 25 million by some estimates -- but you'd hardly know that if you follow the debates that consume the politically powerful.
Never mind the latest U.S. Labor Department report, which showed an official unemployment rate that ticked back up to 9 percent in April. Though the word "jobs" crops up constantly in press releases, floor speeches and Twitter streams here in the capital, plans and programs to fuel actual hiring have lost favor. The unemployment crisis is so 2009.
It doesn't seem to matter much that many families around the country are still struggling to recover from the housing bust, which drained retirement savings, evicted children from their homes, consumed college funds and bankrupted small businesses. More than 4 million people have been out of work for more than a year, the largest group of long-term unemployed since World War II.
And the unemployment rate doesn't tell the full story. Many among those who managed to keep their jobs are still skating along a very thin edge -- one illness or car repair or leaking roof away from financial collapse.
The capital city has long been disconnected from the people it serves, but the odd neglect of the most salient issue on the domestic landscape suggests a chasm between the elite and the ordinary. How is it that the nation's long-term debt problems became the most important issue of the moment? Why did reducing spending suddenly become the central concern of the chattering classes?
The debate over the debt has largely been driven by tea party activists, who powered Republicans to lopsided gains in the November elections. They employ a harsh anti-government rhetoric to insist on spending cuts -- even though they tend to support "big government" programs such as Medicare and Social Security. Their activism dovetailed nicely with the interests of so-called experts, including conservative think-tank types and business executives who want to keep their taxes low.
It probably goes without saying that all those so-called experts are people with jobs -- insulated from the cruel winds of a stormy recovery. I should point out that most of their friends and family members have jobs, too, blinding them to a common reality outside their experience.
But what about members of Congress? Shouldn't they have a little more empathy, a bit of compassion, a touch of concern for their out-of-work constituents?
Or, if they lack compassion, shouldn't they at least have a practical understanding of the problems with the federal treasury? The recession bit deeply into tax revenues, which increased the debt.
"You know, the way to reduce the deficit and the debt is to put people back to work," U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., told me. You need to put people back to work so they will be paying taxes. During the '90s, the budget was balanced because people were working -- the unemployment rate was low."
Ellison doesn't dismiss the soaring federal debt, but he doesn't see it as an imminent crisis. "All the bond market really wants is a credible path toward debt reduction, and I agree with that. But what we need to do first is get the economy moving again."
I spoke to Ellison shortly after he'd left the White House, where he and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus pushed President Barack Obama to do more to reduce joblessness. The president expressed "concern," Ellison said, but he made no promises about using his political capital to push a jobs bill.
That's too bad. The strange neglect of the jobs crisis leaves millions of Americans stranded on that slippery edge.