WHEN the Senate Appropriations Committee adds $1.2 billion to the defense budget, money the Pentagon did not seek, it could be called business as usual in Washington. But giving the Defense Department money it hasn't even asked for while President Clinton's labor secretary is pleading with corporations to provide summer jobs for young people suggests a case of misplaced priorities.
Last week, the appropriations committee approved the extra funds for the Pentagon. The bulk of the money, some $750 million, was to help defray the costs of United States participation in the United Nations operation in Somalia. But the Pentagon noted that it can meet that obligation by transferring money from less important accounts within its existing budget, a point that some senators were unaware of until after the vote.
Mr. Clinton's $16 billion stimulus package, which fell to a GOP filibuster earlier this year, contained $1 billion for summer jobs. This would have brought the jobs program's budget to a $1.9 billion total. The supplemental appropriations bill the Senate now is considering contains only $200 million extra for jobs; the House approved $320 million.
This is inadequate to meet the demand for summer jobs, especially when economic uncertainties continue to affect companies' hiring decisions and the unemployment rates in the nation's largest cities and among teens remain in double digits.
The May unemployment figures released recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the overall jobless rate fell below 7 percent for the first time in nearly two years, to 6.9 percent.
The unemployment rate for teens also fell, from 20.7 percent to 19.7 percent, but it is still too high.
During a press conference last week to focus on the issue, Labor Secretary Robert Reich noted that the demand for summer jobs far exceeds supply. Sign-ups have exceeded available jobs by slightly more than 2 to 1 in the nation's 40 largest cities; 211,367 have applied for 104,067 jobs. Mr. Reich noted that "given the limited public funds, the private sector needs to do more."
Yet the sluggishness of the recovery puts understandable limits on how much the private sector can do, both from the standpoint of the availability of entry-level jobs teens could fill and from the standpoint of morale among existing workers, who might look askance at teens being hired while adults are being laid off.
Clinton's initial plan for summer jobs was reasonable. Shifting even $750 million of the spur-of-the-moment defense allocation could go a long way to putting the summer-jobs program back on track.