Commentary: Partisan gridlock's latest victims

Stop me if you've heard this one before: Partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill is preventing regular folks from getting help they badly need. It's shameful, and voters should demand better from their elected officials.

Senators crafted a bipartisan bill to help small business. It would create a $30 billion fund that would let regional banks loan $300 billion to small businesses. It also creates $12 billion in tax breaks for small business.

People who questioned the efficacy of the first federal stimulus should love this bill. It promises a direct infusion of lending and cash to small businesses. Small business is the backbone, we always hear, of the American economy. But many banks have been reluctant to loan them money for the past two years, stifling job growth.

This bill had the support of Democrats and Republicans, and of most business groups, including the U.S. Chamber, the National Federation of Independent Business and in the Carolinas, the N.C. Bankers Association and the S.C. Small Business Chamber, among many others.

A no-brainer, right?

Not in the Senate, not with mid-term elections just months away. Senators left town Friday for their summer recess without passing the bill.

The legislation stalled primarily because Republicans united against voting for something that Democrats could boast about back home. Many Republicans have said the bill is good for America, but not one broke ranks and voted for it.

GOP leaders say Democrats wouldn't allow sufficient amendments. Sen. Harry Reid said he would allow three Republican amendments; Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that wasn't enough. But Republicans were pushing amendments to extend the Bush administration tax cuts, limit the federal estate tax and toughen border security. Those major initiatives only tangentially relate, if they relate at all, to providing immediate help to small business, and deserve their own debate.

In any case, a spat over amendments shouldn't stall what most everyone agrees is a bill that would provide essential help to small business owners across the country.

Tight credit for small business is one reason you see reports like the one that came out Friday that showed the private sector created just 71,000 jobs in July. More than 40 percent of business owners say they cannot get adequate financing, Business Week reports, almost double the 22 percent who said that two years ago.

To be fair to banks, many small businesses are not creditworthy, and some with stronger balance sheets aren't looking to take on debt right now. But Mary Bruce, a Charlotte consultant to small businesses who owns a small business herself, says there's another camp: Those small businesses that took risks and expanded but then had a tough 2009. Some of them saw their balance sheets take a beating, and now are having a hard time getting capital even though they are on the rebound.

"If they have their business on a good track, they do not need to lose their credit," Bruce, owner of Kaleidoscope Business Options, said. "That can choke off the recovery and cause more business failures or fewer new jobs than would otherwise happen."

The bill's fate so far is emblematic of what's wrong with politics, and the Senate in particular, these days. The gulf between the parties has grown so wide that senators feel pressured not to buck the party line, regardless of the policy in question. If just one Republican - say, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina - had voted in favor, small businesses would receive a major boost when they need it most.

I blame Burr for that, but in today's Senate, he would be showing extraordinary statesmanship just to vote for what most of his constituents would agree is a good bill. It says something about Burr that he won't do that, but it says more about the state of our system that he feels forced to blindly do what party leaders demand.

With Senate rules allowing the minority party to effectively veto anything that doesn't get 60 votes, a unified party can bring the chamber to a standstill. It all makes you wonder what other important work won't get done. Clean energy legislation is in an indefinite holding pattern. And Congress is nowhere near fixing the country's broken immigration policy.

When voters see Carolinas senators home for their summer recess starting this weekend, they should tell them: Stop playing political games, and get about helping the people who sent you to Washington.