Despite my recent raving and ranting about the misfeasance of the U.S. Senate in failing to pass federal unemployment extension benefits, I must admit that I’m beginning to find some logic in the reticence of our elected representatives.
Last month, a cloture vote (a decision to close debate and proceed to a vote on a bill) failed in the Senate on two different bills that would have provided unemployment checks to out-of-work Americans who had already run through their 26 weeks of state jobless benefits. Both bills failed by just a handful of votes.
Which brings us to yesterday’s vote. Now, remember that extending unemployment benefits is very popular among Americans, the people our senators are supposed to represent. In that spirit, five Republicans were willing to break ranks with their caucus and vote “yea.” Still not enough. The bill failed by one vote. One. Vote.
It’s almost as if Republican senators are saying “the answer was no before, the answer is still no, the answer will always be no, stop asking!”
“Because of one person’s inaction today, there’s a family, thousands of families who are going to miss mortgage payments and send their lives into economic chaos,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) was quoted as saying. What a lovely sentiment, Senator, but let’s face it, the lives of the long-term unemployed are already steeped in turmoil and throwing us a bone for three months is unlikely to significantly alter that picture.
There are those who say there is still hope. After all, with a vote that close, trying again is just too tempting for Senate Democrats to pass up. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is calling for at least one more Republican senator to “step up and do the right thing.” As much as I appreciate the gesture, let’s not forget that Reid is an old man who is as out of touch with his constituency as are Senate Republicans. (If you don’t believe me, take a listen to the sound bite in which, earlier this week, he claims to be unfamiliar with the term “couch surfing.” Well, he’s a rich guy — why would he be?)
Senate Republicans claim that they’re standing their ground against fiscal irresponsibility in an age of huge federal deficits. It would be more realistic to say that they’re trying to make a big, splashy point that they’re not about to allow the Democratic majority to run roughshod over them. The bottom line, of course, is that they’re telling unemployed Americans to go to hell. Cue The Silhouettes singing “Get a Job.”
So what are we talking about in terms of numbers? Over a million of us lost our only source of income when extended federal unemployment benefits expired right after Christmas. The bill that failed in the Senate this week would have cost $6.4 billion. Had it passed, it would have provided another three months of unemployment benefits to 1.7 million Americans.
These are not the numbers of chief importance to Republicans in Congress, however. They cite recent statistics such as the unemployment rate falling by one-tenth of a percentage point to 6.6% in January and the economy gaining 75,000 jobs in December. The bigger picture is that these numbers are much worse than last year’s and fall far short of economists’ expectations.
Still, as I stated at the start of this post, I am starting to see Senate Republicans’ point of view. Because none of the acrimony and bickering across the aisle really matters. It’s all a big game of smoke and mirrors, and here’s why:
Number One: Even if one more Republican Senator were to have pity on the unemployed and vote in favor of overcoming a filibuster, the chances of the bill actually passing a vote of the full Senate are not that great. And even if the bill were to pass in the Senate, it doesn’t stand a prayer in John Boehner’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives. No matter how you look at it, the unemployment extension is toast.
Number Two: It’s just a Band-Aid, a very temporary measure that is not likely to have much long-term impact. The latest Senate bill would have provided a maximum of three months of benefit checks to the long-term unemployed, most of whom are not going to be able to secure a job within that brief window. Sure, every little bit helps, but ultimately it’s no different than when I give a burger and fries to the homeless guy with the sign. Yes, it’s better than nothing, but tonight he’s just going to be hungry again. In a nation as wealthy as the United States, surely we can do better than this.
If you read the comments posted on the news stories online, you will catch a lot of tomato-throwing by the “get off your lazy ass and get a job” contingent and the “I’m 60 years old and no one will hire me” technologic obsolescence crew. The former decries the welfare state while the latter sheds tears in its beer about the slim likelihood of ever working again. Then there is the increasing talk of job creation via direct government hiring, à la FDR’s New Deal.
Let’s be honest about this: Most of us are going to sit at home sending out résumés and hoping to attract employer attention, whether we’re receiving an unemployment check or not. That is, of course, until we give up and fall permanently out of the labor market. At that point, we truly become invisible, as those who are neither receiving unemployment compensation nor are actively looking for a job don’t exist, at least as far as government statistics are concerned.
Either way, we unemployed people will find a way to get by. We will lose our homes, we will sell everything we own, we will stuff three families into one dwelling, we will barter, we will adopt freegan habits of pulling discarded food from dumpsters, we will suffer, our children will suffer.
Until, that is, the bottom drops out and our worst nightmares come true. Then we will be the ones holding the sign and hoping for a hamburger. At that point, we shall, like Blanche DuBois, be forced to depend on the kindness of strangers.
And not the ones in Congress, either.
Delaney, Arthur, “Unemployment Insurance Extension Fails Again in Senate,” Huffington Post (Updated Feb. 7, 2014). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/06/unemployment-extension-senate_n_4739526.html
Kane, Paul, “Senate Hits Another Dead End on Unemployment Benefits,” Washington Post (Post Politics, Feb. 6, 2014). http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/02/06/senate-hits-another-dead-end-on-unemployment-benefits/
Peters, Jeremy W., “Senate Fails to Pass Three-Month Extension of Jobless Aid,” New York Times (Politics, Feb. 6, 2014). http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/07/us/politics/senate-fails-to-advance-unemployment-extension.html
Schwartz, Nelson D., “Jobs Report May Raise Questions on Pullback of Stimulus,” New York Times (Business Day, Feb. 7, 2014). http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/business/us-economy-adds-113000-jobs-unemployment-rate-at-6-6.html?hp&_r=0