Today, Congress sets a new record; in the last 40 years, it has never allowed extended unemployment benefits to expire when the unemployment rate was above 7.2 percent. But today, in an economy that faces a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, Congress will let the benefits expire and force 2.5 million Americans to lose their benefits in the midst of the holiday season. As the New York Times notes, such a “lack of regard for working Americans is shocking,” especially when juxtaposed with decades of bipartisan support for similar measures. But, in their pitch to obstruct any legislative progress, the Republicans of the 111th Congress have waged a two-year, all-out war against extending benefits, regardless of who it may hurt. The GOP‘s chief defense of its position is the $12.5 billion cost of a three-month extension, or $60 billion for a full year. Such feigned concern for the deficit is made all the more deceptive when considering the same Republicans are simultaneously demanding that Congress extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. And, while these tax cuts for the rich provide very little economic stimulus, the unemployment benefits they obstruct have provided a vital economic boost to struggling families and businesses. By prioritizing the pocketbooks of the privileged over the needs of the American worker, Republicans are turning their back on their two alleged priorities: the American people and the economy.
PLAYING POLITICS: The dissonance between the GOP “jobs” mantra and its antipathy towards the unemployed can only be explained by politics. Republicans do not have a long-standing policy position against unemployment benefits extensions, having been “more than eager” to pass several similar measures under President Bush. But as President Obama pointed out, the “tradition” to “offer relief to the unemployed” fell victim to the GOP’s desire to obstruct any aspect of his agenda. A brief look the past two years reveals how a party eventually traded decades of good bipartisan policy in the name of “good politics.” In the summer of 2009, Congress “decided to re-up” the unemployment extensions outlined in the Recovery Act. While Republicans delayed the passage by clamoring to defund ACORN, the Senate managed to unanimously pass the first extension last November, 27 days and four votes after the bill’s introduction. But when benefits began to expire again in February 2010, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) — who gladly supported an extension for “our most needy families in Kentucky” in 2003 — decided to single-handedly block an extension, twice. While other GOP senators threatened to hold the extension, Bunning “made [GOP] colleagues squirm” by stopping the Senate from moving forward 11 times in a five-day standoff, telling senators pleading for him to relent “tough sh*t.” But instead of reigning Bunning in, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) noted that the GOP “caught up with the people Bunning was already with” — joining him on what many once deemed “insensitive” tactics to “[throw] a beanball at the unemployed” four times in the next eight months. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) described the GOP obstruction in June as “one of the worst moments I’ve seen in 25 years in the United States Senate.” Not to be left out, the House GOP quashed the fifth attempt to pass unemployment benefits earlier this month, ensuring thousands of families lost their benefits just after Thanksgiving weekend. Emblematic of GOP’s hypocrisy, future House Speaker John Boehner‘s (R-OH) spokesman accused Democrats of “just playing politics with people’s unemployed benefits” right after his boss voted against the extension.
PRIVILEGED GET PRIORITY: Republicans offered a myriad of myths as to why the unemployed do not deserve relief in this economy — laziness, drug addiction, the potential creation of “hobos.” Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer (SC) compared the unemployed to stray animals, saying “you’re facilitating the problem if you give an animal or person ample food supply.” But the most common GOP talking point is that “the nation cannot afford to keep paying unemployment benefits.” Bemoaning the $12.5 billion price tag for a three-month extension, numerous Republicans like Rep. Charles Boustany (LA), Rep. Mike Pence (IN), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) refuse to extend benefits unless the costs are offset. “We can’t fund everything,” said incoming chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee John Kline (R-MN), “we just don’t have the money.” This Republican rebuke of the 2.5 million Americans who will lose their benefits is particularly remarkable when juxtaposed with the GOP’s clarion call to extend all the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans without an offset. An extension of tax cuts for the wealthy would set the deficit back $830 billion over the next ten years. However, in the same breath, Republicans like Sen. Mark Kirk (IL) call for a tax cut extension “no matter what” while deeming an unpaid-for unemployment extension “misguided.” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) even refused to support a compromise that would extend both the cuts and unemployment, characterizing the tax cuts expiration as “a massive tax increase” while dismissing unemployment benefits as “massive spending.” As the New York Times points out, benefits, unlike the tax cuts, do not “bust the budget” — they do not add to the long-term deficit because spending is temporary and, because of the notable bang for each buck, “they contribute powerfully to the economic growth that is vital for a healthy budget.” But Republicans play by their own brand of logic in which a $830 billion chunk in the deficit to finance tax cuts for the wealthy is permissible, but $12.5 billion to help millions of struggling Americans is sacrilege.
CRUEL AND FOOLISH: The GOP’s determination to obstruct any unemployment extension will drastically impact the state of the economy. Of the 2.5 million Americans whose benefits expire today, 1.2 million will exhaust their 26 weeks of regular benefits without finding work, and 800,000 will lose their benefits immediately. These 2.5 million are among the nearly 15 million Americans still looking for a job, four in ten of whom have been looking for at least six months. With the “record-high labor market slack,” the economy has such limited job openings that even if every open position in the country were filled, four out of five unemployed workers still wouldn’t be able to find a job. The number of people in need of this critical relief expands when the economic impact of the benefits is taken into account. Economists estimate that the economy grows by nearly two dollars for every dollar spent on unemployment benefits “because recipients typically spend all of their benefit payments quickly,” particularly at small- and medium-sized businesses. The money “ripples through the economy into supermarkets, gasoline stations, utilities, convenience stores.” One Philadelphia grocer worried that, with a “good portion” of his customers losing benefits, he will be forced to “cut back on [his] labor force discontinuation of benefits “will likely be felt most quickly among retailers during the upcoming holiday shopping season.” What’s more, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, extended benefits kept the poverty rate more than a full point below where it would have been otherwise in 2009 — preventing 3.3 million people from falling into poverty. And by keeping an average of 1.6 million American workers in jobs every quarter during this recession and having increased the GDP by $315 billion overall, benefits are more than much-needed relief, they’re “our economy’s first lines of defense to address recessions.” Without it, annual economic growth could fall by half to one full percentage point, up to 1 million more people could lose their jobs, and hundreds of thousands would fall into poverty. But, as the New York Times points out, the GOP tends to ignore these “facts and logic.” By clamoring about “too costly” jobless benefits while championing “vastly more expensive tax cuts for the rich,” Republicans endanger a vital tool in “ensuring that families can buy the basics” – a position that is “not only cruel, but foolish.”