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 These included measures that would have repealed large parts of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), authorized construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and five or six other things that had absolutely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?
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).