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.
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).