Passover Finale

Approximately four hours from now, I plan to go out to dinner with my wife.

This may not seem like a big deal, but believe me, it is.  Passover will finally end at sundown today.  After eight days of eating vegetables, fruit and hard, dry matzo, I am so ready to eat some decent food.

Now, you may say that vegans never eat any decent food.  This is the farthest thing from the truth.  But the religious dietary rules of Passover, which are difficult to follow for even dedicated carnivores, make putting together a proper vegan meal a real challenge.

So what do I look forward to eating?  Some protein, for one.  I now know that it’s possible to go eight days with virtually no protein, but it’s not exactly a thrill ride.  I definitely see a veggie burger and French fries in my immediate future.

It always takes me by surprise how things are honored in the breach.  We don’t really appreciate the good things in our lives until they’re gone.  Even things as simple as a toasted bagel.

So I’d like my soy products back, please.  And my legumes and my grains and my vinegar, too.  I think it’s time to buy a big block of super firm tofu.  I’m ready to toss a handful of green olives on my salad again, to indulge in a juicy, salty dill pickle and to eat a big bowl of oatmeal with soy milk for breakfast.  I want to find a loaf of crusty bread and slather it from here to tomorrow with hummus.  I want to make myself a bean burrito.  I want to enjoy a big bowl of tomato soup with rice and a plate piled high with spaghetti.  And I want my coconut milk “ice cream” for dessert.

I just hope that the transition back to my usual eating patterns doesn’t mess up my stomach too badly.  When you’re on diabetes medication, take it from me that any change in diet throws your gastrointestinal tract into fits that can reach epic proportions.

Today I marked the last day of Passover by preparing a feast of leftovers.  Just as we sweep all the hametz (leavened food items) out of our homes before the holiday, it is now time to get rid of what remains of the Passover food and return to your regularly scheduled program.

feast
The salad and baked potato were made fresh. The eggplant, carrots and boiled beets were all leftovers.

Passover is our festival of freedom, during which we celebrate our liberation from 400 years of slavery in ancient Egypt.  I like the idea that it is an opportunity to free ourselves from the bad patterns of action into which we have fallen, to break the bonds that enchain us to unproductive behaviors.  When it comes to food, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we all have habits that could stand to be broken.  But that doesn’t make the absence of our favorite foods any easier to bear.

It looks like I’ve made it through another Passover.  But I’ll risk irreverence by saying that I won’t miss it when it’s gone.

Vegan Passover

“Passover is a hard holiday,” my mother has always said.  And also:  “It’s Passover, you have to suffer a little.”

When you’re a vegan who observes the already formidable food restrictions of Passover, you suffer more than a little.  Particularly if your cooking skills are very limited.  My only saving grace is my wonderful wife who humors me and is a wiz with a grocery list.

During the week of Passover, we are not permitted to eat any hametz (leavened bread or any other product that contains or may contain leavening) or kitniyot (leguminous vegetables and most grains).  This is how it pans out:  No hametz means no bread, cake, muffins, bagels, cookies, pizza dough, pasta, mustard, grain-based alcohol or vinegar.  No kitniyot means no beans, peas, corn, peanuts or peanut butter, rice, quinoa or oats.  In other words, most commercial products that come in a can, box, bag or jar are out.  For one thing, almost everything contains corn syrup or corn starch or vinegar these days.  That crosses off most items you would find on a supermarket shelf, including soda pop, tomato sauce, soup, pickles, olives, salad dressings, jelly, candy, pretzels, yogurt, ice cream — you name it.

One coping mechanism that is tried and true among observant Jews is the purchase of specially made Passover products that don’t include any forbidden ingredients.  There are Passover cookies and cakes, Passover ice cream, Passover jam, Passover pickles and olives, Passover ketchup, Passover mayonnaise and on and on.  I used to buy these things with alacrity, and at premium prices too, back when I lived in the New York City metropolitan area.  But just try finding this stuff in a rural area of the western United States.  You can’t!  Some compensate by making the sixteen hour round trip to Los Angeles to pick up Passover specialties.  Others order Passover items online and have them shipped to their homes.  However, these tactics are out for me at present due to unemployment and its attendant budgetary restrictions.

eggplant

Baked eggplant with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes.

So what exactly do we eat during the eight days of Passover?  In Hebrew, Passover is known as hag ha’matzot, the festival of matzo, but man does not live by this dry, crispy cracker alone.  Traditionally, we eat meat, fish, dairy products, vegetables and fruit, purchasing these items fresh and avoiding canned and prepared products that may have impermissible additives.  As a vegan, however, the first three items are crossed off that list, leaving me with vegetables and fruit.

The most difficult part of observing Passover for a vegan is that soybeans are considered kitniyot and hence, no soy products are allowed.  As I do little cooking beyond what I can throw in the microwave, this restriction eliminates most sources of protein from my diet.  Veggie burgers, veggie hot dogs, tofu, soy milk, hummus, nondairy “cheese,” nondairy margarine — all go right out the window.  My other primary source of protein is beans, lovely chick peas, black beans, pintos, white northern beans.  All of these are legumes and hence prohibited.  Even my old standby, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, is forbidden.

So what’s a vegan to do for protein during Passover?  Some cope by ignoring the kitniyot restriction and eating soy products, justifying this on the grounds that Sephardic Jews (those whose ancestors hail from Spain) traditionally do so.  This is fine (I suppose) if you happen to be Sephardic.  If, like me, however, you’re of eastern European heritage and definitely not Sephardic, this justification for eating soy during Passover is really nothing but a bit of self-delusional folly for one’s own convenience.  And yet, there are plenty who play “let’s pretend” and do just that.  I think this is a bit like me pretending to be a Christian so that I can indulge in the Easter ham.  It makes no sense whatsoever.

Those of us who wish to be honest are left to eke out whatever protein we can find in non-leguminous vegetables.  Some say that spinach is an excellent source of protein, while others dispute this assertion.  This article claims that spinach contains 13 grams of protein per serving, while this article claims that it contains only one gram of protein.  Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and even potatoes also contain some protein, although nothing like what you get from beans.

orange stuff

Carrots and yams, Vitamin A à l’orange

The answer for a vegan who observes Passover is that you do the best you can.  I double down on spinach, broccoli and potatoes, along with my usual salad greens and fruit.  I eat lots of orange stuff, like yams and carrots, to get plenty of Vitamin A.  Dry matzo is made more palatable by spreading guacamole on it.

However, with avocadoes going for 88 cents apiece around here, I’m glad that Passover is only eight days long.  And that Tuesday at sundown it will be just a memory.

That is, until next April rolls around.

A Vegan Walks into a Seder

So a vegan walks into a Seder . . .

It sounds like the start of a not very funny joke with the punch line “the duck quacked up!”  Unfortunately, this is not too far from the facts.

On the first night of Passover, I attended a community Seder with my parents at their local Chabad House.  The rabbi, his wife and their children live there; the synagogue is in an unused bedroom and the Seder was conducted at long tables pushed together in the living room.

The Seder was advertised to begin at 7:15 pm.  As we are well aware that dinner is not served until an hour or so into the service, we ate at home beforehand.  It’s a good thing we did.

7:15 came and went with everyone milling around and chatting.  About a quarter to eight, the rabbi called everyone into the synagogue for a pre-Seder evening service.  He personally herded in all the men in attendance to be sure of a minyan (religious quorum) being present.  Only a few of the women entered the synagogue room to sit on the opposite side of the divider (men and women are required to sit separately).  Most of the women remained in the living room, socializing.

The Seder actually got underway a little after 8:30.  After the opening prayer, we sipped wine and ate a tiny piece of potato dipped in salt water, representing the contrast between the tears shed during our 400 years of slavery in Egypt and our freedom today.  From thence, approximately two more hours elapsed until dinner was served.  This was largely because the service was drawn out unnecessarily by interruptions for the playing of guessing games and other such palaver designed to make the proceedings more “meaningful.”  The prayer book (called a Hagaddah) used for the service, which tells the story of our exodus from Egypt, was in a similar hippy-dippy vein.  Traditional translations were mangled into unrecognizable mush.  For example, “the wicked son” (part of the parable of the four sons) was translated as “he who is totally chilled out.”  And “pillars of fire” was translated as “mushroom clouds.”  I half expected to find “Dude!” or “Far Out!” in place of “Amen.”

The rabbi presided over the service from the head of the table, while I ended up seated at the far end of the long living room, nearly at the door.  The hubbub of dozens of conversations buzzed all around me, as if no one were paying any attention at all to the service.  How rude!  The combination of the cacophony and my distance from the rabbi meant that I was barely able to hear anything that was going on at the head table.

Meanwhile, people were getting hungry and therefore dug into the Seder plate and the appetizers that had been set out in advance, taking no notice of whether or not it was the correct point in the service to do so.

Dinner began coming out to the tables shortly after 10:30 pm.  The first plate served consisted of a slab of salmon, some egg salad, a lettuce leaf and a slice of tomato.  Being a vegan, I passed my plate on down the table.

Next came the gefilte fish.  Pass it on down.

Then came the chicken soup.  Pass it on down.

By this time, some of the guests sitting near me were concerned that I wasn’t eating anything.  “Are you a vegan?” one of them asked.  Answering in the affirmative, my predicament was passed on to the rabbi’s wife and her assistants in the kitchen.  Thus, when the entrée came around (roast beef and turkey), I was handed a plate with some glazed carrots, a piece of yam and a pile of beets that looked like chopped-up escapees from a recent batch of borscht.

Fortunately, there were little dishes of guacamole and ratatouille on the table, and I ate a lot of this slathered on matzo.

I should report that the next night turned out much better.  We held the second Seder at my parents’ house, with just the three of us in attendance.  My mother announced that she was too tired “to make a production” and that dinner would consist of a boiled egg and gefilte fish out of a jar.

At least I knew what to expect.  We started the service at a more reasonable hour and reached the dinner service about an hour later.  I had prepared my own baked eggplant, tomato and mushroom dish (with plenty of onion and garlic) and took it out of the oven piping hot just before it was time to eat.

Delicious!

 

Passover Stories

matzo

My teenaged niece, who is not Jewish, asked me to explain why on Passover I will eat sunflower seeds in the shell, but not sunflower nuts in a jar.  She then asked me whether I am required to eat nothing but matzo for the entire eight days of the holiday.

It’s awfully hard explaining our traditions.  As she did not know the story of Passover, I attempted to summarize the Book of Exodus as best I could.  My wife said I was taking too long and should deliver the short version.  Then she asked me if this was the short version.

Someone hand me a Haggadah, please.  After all, the Bible teaches that it is our duty to retell the story of Passover year after year, to teach it to our children so that it is handed down l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation.

I attempted to synopsize the story of the Jews going down to Egypt due to a famine in the Land of Canaan and then being enslaved by the Pharaohs for 400 years.  I covered the rise of Moses as our leader, the ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians and how the houses of the Jews marked with the blood of the lamb on the doorposts were “passed over” on the night of the slaying of the firstborn.  I explained that the women kneaded dough for bread every day and left it on the hot rocks to rise and bake in the Egyptian sun, and that when Pharaoh thrust the Jews out of Egypt without a moment’s notice on the morning following the tenth plague, the women grabbed the dough that was barely a flat cracker because it hadn’t yet had time to rise.  This, of course, was the prototype of the hard, crispy, unleavened matzo that we eat during Passover to this day.

I encouraged my niece to read the Book of Exodus and learn the whole story.  She asked me whether it is scary.  “Not as scary as the Book of Revelation,” I replied.

I don’t expect her to take me up on my offer.  Even if she did check out the second book of the Bible, she would learn nothing about the customs regarding kitniyot, the legumes (corn, beans, peas, peanuts and products made therefrom) that we traditionally avoid during Passover.  And she certainly would not be enlightened as to the Talmudic origins of why this week we don’t eat nuts and seeds unless we remove them from the shells ourselves.  I’m sure she would be even more confused if I tried to explain the difference between kitniyot and hametz (most grain products) or if I told her that Jews in some parts of the world eat the former but not the latter during Passover.  We have so many laws, rules and customs, some Biblical and others of rabbinic origin, some ancient and others that have evolved over time.

When I told my niece that Joseph went down to Egypt after his brothers sold him into slavery, I was pleased that she remembered that he was an interpreter of dreams.  I’m sure she remembers some Bible stories from when she was little and attended Sunday school and kids’ church.  But I fear that it is no longer reasonable to expect the teens of today to read the Bible.  To them, even the Vietnam War reads like ancient history, much less events that occurred thousands of years ago.  Perhaps it’s our own fault for not presenting the Bible as a living, breathing work that may be more relevant today than it ever was.

And what about our other Passover stories?  There are the happy stories, the ones in which many of us have experienced personal miracles in our lives during Passover.  But, alas, there are also the truly frightening stories of blood libel, when Passover was used as an excuse to slaughter Jews by the hundreds following unjust accusations of such ghastly horrors as using the blood of Christian children in our rituals.  The facts that the consumption of blood and the primitive practice of human sacrifice are both strictly prohibited by our faith were routinely ignored.

On the first night of Passover, I attended a community Seder (our traditional service and dinner) at a synagogue with my parents.  As the participants gathered, the early arrivals milled about, enjoying the snack table while they renewed old acquaintances and made new ones.  I listened attentively as the rabbi held forth to a group of people on how strictly observant shmura matzo is made.  These matzos are round rather than the commercially made rectangular box matzos.  They are super thin and therefore have a tendency to be burned at the edges.  The word shmura means “watched,” and watched they are — from the time the grain is harvested through the flour grinding process and the baking.  Matzo is made from just two ingredients, flour and water.  To avoid the possibility of unintentional leavening, the flour must be held in a totally dry area separated from the water until kneading.  From the moment the water touches the flour until the final, baked product comes out of the oven, no more than eighteen minutes may elapse.  The rabbi told us that with modern, computerized ovens, baking occurs in a matter of ten seconds.

I soon began a conversation with the rabbi’s wife.  She related to me that a non-Jewish member of the community phoned the synagogue a few days earlier to request lamb’s blood.  Assuming that, as Jews, we would be slaughtering a lamb for Passover, he asked if he could please purchase some of the blood.

My eyes grew wider as the story went on.  Could it be that some still don’t know that animal sacrifice stopped with the destruction of the Holy Temple thousands of years ago?  The caller began pleading, the rabbi’s wife told me.  He explained that we are experiencing a “blood moon” and that if he doesn’t paint some lamb’s blood on his doorposts, something terrible will happen.

“What a lunatic!” I blurted out.

Seeing that I was getting stirred up by this story, the rabbi’s wife finally relented.  “I’m kidding,” she admitted.

I didn’t find this funny at all, but then again, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of having no sense of humor.

 

Passover in the Here and Now

MADERA

The neighborhood roosters begin crowing you awake long before the rising of the sun. Soon, the cacophonous chirp and twitter of a veritable avian orchestra joins them, led by a pair of mourning doves calling to each other, seemingly without surcease.  Someone’s donkey is braying good morning.  Hauling myself out of bed to sit on my parents’ back patio with a cup of tea, I can barely see the horse next door.  It is virtually camouflaged by outbuildings and undergrowth, the swish of the tail just visible  as it munches the dry grass close by the fence, with only the occasional whinny to remind the world that it is here.

I am visiting my parents for a week at their home out in the country.  I will catch up with old friends in Fresno, trade words across a Scrabble board and munch matzo with my my mother and father at the two Passover Seders.

In spite of the early morning hullaballoo occasioned by the local fauna, this place is notable for its peace and quiet.  My parents say they are bothered by the sounds of cars speeding past on their way out to Road 37 or Highway 145, heading to work or shop in Fresno and points farther afield.  But it is different for me.  As I live a block from a freeway exit, here I notice only the sounds of the birds and the animals.  The roar of eighteen wheel diesels, to which I have become accustomed, is conspicuously absent.

It is springtime, and my parents are constantly out gardening and tending to their large property.  Recently, they had to kill a couple of poisonous snakes.  My mother complains about the moles digging up her vegetables.  She has put down wire mesh beneath her box plantings to deter the rodents.  Touring her garden, I notice the plethora of insects and worms in attendance.

“The birds must love it here,” I remark.

“Why don’t you ask them?” she replies without missing a beat.

At the age of eighty, my parents’ quick wits and definite opinions are as sharp as ever.  My mother complains about everything:  My weight, my clothes, my career moves, my sister, her cousin from Los Angeles, the neighbors, supermarket prices, even the birds.  There is one bird on her property, she insists, that mocks her by calling out “Debbie stinks, Debbie stinks, Debbie stinks!”

During my visit, my mother spoils me by cooking my favorite traditional dishes:  Lima bean soup, borscht with boiled potato, stuffed cabbage, homemade apple pie.  But she just finished a course of antibiotics for an infection in her arm, and she finds it painful to do all that chopping and grating.  I have agreed to prepare the haroseth tomorrow, the traditional paste of apples, walnuts and cinnamon that we eat during the Seder.  I will add chopped dates, the way she likes it.  Saving her all that peeling and cutting is the least I can do.

Now it is evening, and we drag folding chairs out of the garage to enjoy the cool breeze that blows down the driveway.  We chat about old times, describing our memories of events that occurred fifty years ago.  Then it is time for the great star show.  With few street or house lights, it is dark out here; the jewel encrusted night sky shines forth in all its twinkly splendor, as if for our enjoyment alone.  The only constellation I recognize is Orion.  My mother points out the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and Cassiopeia, while she searches for red-hued Beetlegeuse, which was burning out even when she studied astronomy back in college, she tells me.  Later, after TV episodes of “Call the Midwife” and “The Good Wife,” we will sit on the couch and pore over albums full of black and white photos from the sixties and seventies.

I wonder how long this will last.  My father still dons a hat and heads out to mow the property in 95 degree heat.  My mother still digs and plants and prunes and waters.  As their health issues increase, however, it becomes painfully obvious that this cannot go on forever.

The nightly cricket concert is well underway, and I have box seats courtesy of my open window.  And as I allow the chirping to lull me to sleep in the guest bedroom of my parents’ house, I am reminded that I must cherish every moment here.

For as much as I miss my wife and my comfortable routine back at home, I can’t escape the fact that today could be the last time I get to do this.

 

 

Unemployment Extension Passes in the Senate (House Repubs Say “So What?”)

The procedural feints, the delaying tactics, the fights over amendments and the attempts to filibuster have finally come to an end.  After three months of political wrangling between Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. Senate finally passed the unemployment extension bill on Monday.

The final vote was 59-38, with 51 Democrats, six Republicans and two independents approving the measure.  The bill would provide five months of benefit checks to the long-term unemployed, those of us who have been out of work for more than six months.  Most states provide unemployment benefits for the first 26 weeks after an employee is laid off; typically, the federal government picks up from there.  However, the federal unemployment extension enabling legislation expired on December 29, cutting off more than a million Americans from any source of income.  Since then, another million and a half of us have run out our six months of state benefits, leaving us out of money and out of luck.

The problem with the limited amount of state employment available is that, in the present economy, a person who is laid off requires far more than six months to find another one.  Without the federal extension, those who lose their jobs have also been losing their homes and depending on the assistance of Food Stamps, food banks and extended family to keep their kids from going hungry.

Now that the Senate bill has passed, what does it mean for us?  Not much.  Will unemployment checks resume anytime soon?  No.

The most important thing my fellow unemployed Americans should know at this point is this:  Do not spend or borrow even a penny in anticipation of the unemployment extension.  The check is not in the mail, folks.  And it probably never will be.

True, the bill has passed in the Senate, but it still has to pass in the House of Representatives and be signed by the president before it can become law.  President Obama has long favored extending unemployment benefits, so that is not an issue.  The problem is that it will be extremely difficult for the measure to pass in the House.

This is not to say that passage in the House is impossible.  Anything is possible.  It just doesn’t seem very likely at this point.  House Speaker John Boehner has made it clear that he has no intention of bringing the unemployment extension bill to a vote.  Not that anything could be done for a while anyway.  Starting Friday, the House will be out of session for the next two weeks.

It has already taken three months of head-butting and grandstanding in the Senate to get this far.  And that’s with a Democratic majority.  The House, which is more than quadruple the size of the Senate, is controlled by Republicans.  And congressional Republicans, starting with Boehner, have made it clear that they have no intention of bailing out more than three million Americans who have been rendered penniless after the economy left them choking on dust.

In my last post, I suggested that Sen. Rob Portman, who broke ranks with most of his caucus to help the unemployment extension pass, meet with Boehner, his friend and fellow Ohioan to try to talk some sense into him.  Now that the measure has gone to the House, it appears that others have had the same idea.

Glimmers of hope amidst controversy

According to The Washington Post, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, one of the six Republicans who voted yea, has requested a meeting with Boehner to discuss the unemployment extension.  Meanwhile, seven congressmen from Boehner’s own party have written him a letter requesting that the House take up the Senate bill immediately.  The letter was signed by three representatives from New York, three from New Jersey and Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada.

However, Boehner had previously indicated his opposition to the Senate bill because it is not tied to jobs-creation measures and because expecting states to cut checks retroactively is “unworkable.”  Some congressional Republicans claim that issuing checks all the way back to December could result in massive fraud and could even result in millionaires receiving unemployment extension benefits.  Other suggest that many states simply lack the data processing muscle to handle retroactive issuance of benefits.  Still others point out that it would be next to impossible to find all the claimants who would be entitled to back unemployment checks.  Many Democrats regard these arguments as smokescreens.

The bottom line is that congressional Republicans oppose helping unemployed Americans because they believe that we are lazy and don’t want to work.  If we are suffering, the argument goes, it is all our own fault.  If we were to diligently pound the pavement, we’d find a job and would be able to support our families without depending on government handouts.

The hubris of this viewpoint is illustrated by the fact that free market creation of jobs has stalled while the unemployment rate remains steady at about 6.7%.  The argument against this figure is that the unemployment rate is “only” 6.7%, down from 10% seven or eight years ago.

What the unemployment figures fail to account for, however, is that many Americans have been out of work for a very long time and have simply fallen off the charts.  If someone lost his or her job four or five years ago, searched hard and long for work and finally gave up in hopelessness and despair, that person is considered to have left the job market and is not included in the unemployment statistics that are published in the news.  If everyone falling into this category were counted, the true number of unemployed Americans would likely top the 10% figure reported at the height of the recession.

Boehner and his Republican brethren also argue that we cannot afford the expense of the unemployment extension.  Of course, we can afford everything else, from funding the Keystone pipeline to sending money overseas to a trillion dollar military budget.  What we’re talking about here is providing needy families with some temporary help to the tune of about $256 weekly for a period of five months.  To say that this is a budget-busting measure that would destroy efforts to reduce the federal deficit is nothing short of ridiculous.

And then there is the Republican argument that recipients of back unemployment checks will quickly run through their windfall, leaving them still unemployed and still seeking government support.  Considering the dire straits in which hundreds of thousands of unemployed families have found themselves, it is undoubtedly true that back unemployment benefits will be used for things like food and paying overdue rent.  Making these types of purchases will expand the economy and create jobs, making re-employment of aid recipients more likely.

So, you see, the unemployment extension is itself a job creation plan.  In fact, it would create as many as 300,000 new jobs, by the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate.  Boehner’s assertion that the Senate bill should not move forward unless a way is found to create more jobs represents circuitous logic that is as mindless and exhausting as a dog chasing its tail.

RIP Duke Griego.  Your small-town diner will live on as your legacy in our community for decades to come.

 

References

Associated Press, “Unemployment Benefits Bill Headed to House,” Washington Post (Congress, April 8, 2014).

Isquith, Elias, “House GOP Hopes to Ignore Senate-Passed Unemployment Insurance Extension,” salon.com (April 8, 2014).

Lowery, Wesley, “Senate Passes Extension to Unemployment Insurance, Bill Heads to House,” Washington Post (Post Politics, April 7, 2014).

 

Unemployment Extension: Brother vs. Brother

Last Sunday, I wrote that the Senate was likely to pass the unemployment extension bill on Monday morning.  It still hasn’t happened.

Now that another week has gone by, I again say that it is likely that the Senate will pass the bill this Monday.  But who cares?  Once more I put it to you that it really doesn’t matter whether they pass it or not.

That crash and tinkle you hear is the sound of the unemployment extension smashing into the brick wall that is the House of Representatives.

So what was the holdup this week?  On Monday, Senate Republicans tried to filibuster the measure again, a last-ditch effort that failed because the Democrats plus five Republican defectors provided the two-thirds vote necessary to close debate.  The unemployment extension was supposed to come up for a vote on Thursday.

Ah, but party politics is always the order of the day in Congress.  Senate Republicans agreed to move the bill forward to a vote if they got some candy out of the deal.  Specifically, the GOP wanted a laundry list of unrelated gimmes tacked on as amendments to the unemployment extension.  These included measures that would have repealed large parts of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), authorized construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and five or six other things that had absolutely nothing to do with unemployment.  Of course, Senate Democrats said “no dice.”

And so the suffering of American families goes on.  Over a million lost their benefits when the enabling legislation for federal unemployment relief expired during the week of Christmas.  Since then, that number has been doubled, with about 3.5 million of us out of work, out of unemployment checks and out of luck.

Now they’re saying that the unemployment bill will be taken up by the Senate again this week and is likely to pass Monday night.  At that point, it will be sent over to the hangman’s noose that is the House of Representatives.

The motley crew of 435 over there is a little like the wild, wild West.  All eyes are on the House, which appears to have transformed itself from the usual whirling dervish into the very eye of the hurricane.  Getting the unemployment extension bill to pass in that body seems a task worthy of the labors of Hercules.

Take, for example, recent comments made by the office of Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio).  He opposes the unemployment extension, citing the $210 billion that unemployment relief has already added to the national debt in recent years.  Stating that unemployment insurance was always intended to be temporary, his spokeswoman stated “it is time for the program to end.”

Well, how about that!  I had no idea that unemployment insurance was a temporary thing.  I mean, golly gee, I was just hoping to be laid off so that the government could support me in style for the rest of my life!

This is the sort of dreck we are dealing with in the House, folks.

There are many in the House (and the Senate, too) who understandably see the unemployment bill as a Band-Aid when a long-term solution is needed.  Well, let’s do something about that then!  Trickle-down economics did not work in the Reagan era and is not working now.  Providing tax breaks to small business is not nearly enough.  Bailing out the big guys so they can move their operations overseas is not helping either.  If you want to create jobs, Congress, then go ahead and create them already. Directly. What we need is a modern-day WPA that FDR used so effectively to put the unemployed back to work during the Great Depression.  Yes, this costs money, but wouldn’t it be better spent on putting the country back to work, giving people valuable job skills and increasing the self-respect that comes from gainful employment?

But Congress doesn’t want to spend money on this either.  We can give money to the Ukraine, increase military expenditures and avoid the fiscal cliff so the government can keep going, but we can manage neither to create jobs nor to provide unemployment checks for those without them.

So here 3.5 million of us sit — no job, no check, no hope.  Foreclosures, families on the street, no vacancy signs at homeless shelters and food banks stretched to the limit are the result.

 

Facing Disaster in the House

Speaker of the House John Boehner appears committed to preventing the unemployment extension bill from coming to a vote, calling it “unworkable.”  It is understandable that he wishes to avoid the wrath of ultra-conservative factions within his own party and thereby hold onto his speakership.  But I think one of the more fascinating aspects of this congressional drama is the brother vs. brother script being played out behind the scenes.  Perhaps not exactly of Cain and Abel magnitude, but reminiscent of many families during the Civil War in which one brother fought for the Union and another for the Confederacy.

The current battle pits Sen. Rob Portman against Boehner.  Both of them are from Ohio.  Both of them are Republicans.  They are reportedly good friends.  But Portman (along with four others) broke ranks with fellow Republicans in the Senate to quash the filibuster, opening a path for passage of the unemployment bill.  This is a huge deal.  Originally, support for the unemployment extension broke strictly along party lines in the Senate.  Even with every last Democrat in the Senate voting for the bill, there were not enough votes to pass it.  Some Republicans had to cross the aisle and join ranks with the Democrats to make it happen.  It took a few months, but eventually Portman and the other four came to their senses and did the right thing.

Now that Senator Portman publicly supports the unemployment extension and admits that our current unemployment benefits system is broken, will he exercise any influence over his recalcitrant Ohio brother in the House?  Certainly not in front of the cameras and microphones, but you never know what’s going on in the background.  Portman says he talks to Boehner all the time.  However, he says that what goes on in the House is Boehner’s business and that he’s not about to tell him what to do.

Despite what Portman tells the media, it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t had some serious discussions with Boehner.  True, Portman is just one in a hundred while Boehner is the head enchilada over in his chamber.  The public outcry is starting to be heard.  Rumor has it that Boehner’s office phone number has had to be changed three times recently after being flooded with calls.

Now it’s time for Portman to make the one call that really counts.  So Rob, take John out for a nice lunch and talk some sense into him, now won’t you?

 

References

Garver, Rob, “Unemployment Insurance Bill Hits Political Snags,” Yahoo! News (The Fiscal Times, April 4, 2014).

Lesniewski, Niels and Humberto Sanchez, “Unemployment Extension Fight Pits Portman Against Boehner,” rollcall.com (March 24, 2014).

O’Keefe, Ed and Wesley Lowery, “The Senate is Going to Pass an Unemployment Insurance Extension. The House is Unimpressed.,” Washington Post (The Fix, April 3, 2014).

Schultze, M.L., “Portman Says He Won’t Tell the House What to Do with the Unemployment Bill,” WKSU 89.7, Kent State University (Ohio, March 27, 2014).

Seattle Times, Congress Must Act to Extend Federal Unemployment Benefits” (Originally published March 15, 2014, reprinted April 5, 2014).