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“How Radical Becomes Normal”: The Fight Over Unemployment Benefits Underscores The Right’s Extremism

So this is showdown week in Congress for extension of unemployment benefits. Frankly, it looks bleak. No, it’s not that the public is against it. In fact far from it—58 percent support the extension in a new poll. But as I’ve written a kajillion times these last few years, it unfortunately doesn’t much matter what the people think. Republicans in Congress care only about the views of the more radical half of their party. And in that same poll, Republicans opposed the extension 54-42.

As long as that remains the case (and there’s no reason it’s likely to change), “UI,” as they call it on the Hill, seems a heavy lift. Republicans are insisting on cuts from elsewhere in the federal budget to pay for the benefits’ $6.4 billion cost. And Democrats are talking with them. But there’s no progress yet. In fact, it seems today that even the six Republicans who voted in the Senate last week to allow debate to proceed would not vote to extend the benefits just yet.

But let’s take a step back here, because introducing a little bit of historical context shows just how extreme the Republicans’ position is, and it shows us how, over time, what used to be crazy-radical becomes normal with the people.

When George W. Bush was president, noted Labor Secretary Thomas Perez on Jim Lehrer’s PBS show last week, unemployment benefits were extended five times, “no strings attached any of those times.” So as long as it was a Republican president under whom their constituents were out of work, they were happy to vote to extend the benefits. The last extension under Bush, in late 2008, passed 368-28 in the House of Representatives. Remember, this was with no “pay-fors,” in the argot. This vote took place a month before Election Day, which may have partly motivated 142 Republicans to vote for it with only the real hard-shellers going against it.

Now let’s move forward to 2010. We have a new president from a different party. The economy is struggling. The Republicans of course haven’t exactly been supportive of Barack Obama’s agenda, but on this one, they’re ready to agree. All but one. Jim Bunning, then a GOP senator from Kentucky, insisted that he wasn’t against extending such benefits, but he was against increasing the deficit by a few billion bucks.

But even then, the Senate GOP leadership wasn’t with Bunning. I remember that time well. Bunning had a few defenders among his colleagues, but basically, his position was seen as extreme by Democrats and even many or possibly most Republicans. Bunning finally got the message after a couple of weeks of antics—which included him whining that his noble filibuster against helping the nation’s jobless was preventing him from watching an important Kentucky Wildcats basketball game—and relented.

But what was considered extreme and nutty then is standard operating procedure today. A key development here was Rand Paul saying a couple of weeks ago that benefits beyond 26 weeks just make people lazy. That unleashed the right-wing id. In addition to that, of course, there’s the standing GOP House opposition to anything with Obama’s name on it. And this is how radical becomes normal.

Friday, I was at a meeting with a group of House Democratic lawmakers. They offered a few ideas about how they might get Republicans to agree. John Garamendi of California talked about a few billion being spent on a program in Afghanistan that he thought the GOP might play ball on. There were a few other notions, but none of them, I noticed, bruited with much confidence that they’d actually get anywhere.

Several echoed Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro in saying that they just have to win the battle in the court of public opinion. “These are Americans’ stories,” DeLauro said. “When people hear them, they’re moved.” There’s no doubt that that’s true. But it was true of gun safety, and it was true of immigration reform, and numerous other things.

I don’t know if the Democrats can win this on the floor. Maybe the horrible jobs report from December helps a little, maybe not. But since public opinion is already on their side, they can at least take this issue and make it hurt Republicans in states with high unemployment or Republicans who are singing a different tune than they did in 2010, a list that starts with Mitch McConnell, who agreed to the 2010 extension and is now going around saying that if Democrats want UI benefits extended, they’d have to agree to a one-year delay in the individual mandate under Obamacare.

And if Democrats win, great. But it looks like they’ll only win by agreeing to the pay-for demand, which means that there’ll be new demands next time. There’s no end to how far right these people will go.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, January 13, 2014

January 14, 2014 Posted by | Republicans, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pull Harder On Your Bootstraps!”: Excuses, Excuses, For Not Extending Unemployment Insurance

The president on Tuesday called on Congress to extend jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, saying the insurance program keeps Americans from “falling off a cliff.” But the Republican leadership — convinced that Americans can pull themselves up and out of the ravine by their bootstraps — finds the extension unnecessary.

“Pull harder!” sounds kind of callous, though, especially since the unemployment rate hovers above 7 percent and there are more people looking for work than positions available. So Republicans are finding nicer ways of explaining their objections, and ginning up excuses.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the Republican leadership sent a “what we talk about when we talk about cutting benefits”-type memo to the rank-and-file, which emphasizes the need for compassion. “For every American out of work, it’s a personal crisis for them and their family,” the memo states. “That’s why House Republicans remain focused on creating jobs and growing the economy.”

Is job creation incompatible with extending unemployment insurance? The memo suggests it is: “Even the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has found that extending the program will lead to some workers reducing the intensity of their job search and staying unemployed longer.”

By the way, the C.B.O. also estimated in December that “extending unemployment benefits would raise gross domestic product (GDP) and employment in 2014 relative to what would occur under current law.” No mention of that in the memo.

Republicans are also trying to make themselves look better by insisting they’d agree to an extension if the cost were “offset” with cuts to the federal budget. Raising revenue by closing tax loopholes is, naturally, off the table. And what’s on the table, at least so far, is definitely not kosher for Democrats.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, suggested paying for the cost of an extension by “lifting the burden of Obamacare’s individual mandate for one year.” It’s true that would save money — according to the C.B.O. — but only because fewer uninsured people would seek and receive Medicaid coverage.


By: Juliet Lapidos, Editor’s Blog, The New York Times, January 8, 2014

January 12, 2014 Posted by | Republicans, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Intellectual Hollowness”: Why Republicans Have No Ideas About Mass Unemployment

Last Saturday, the extension of unemployment benefits originally passed at the outset of the economic crisis expired. The position of Democrats in Washington, backed by a growing mountain of economic research, is that macroeconomic and humanitarian considerations alike both argue for an extension of unemployment benefits.

The position of Republicans in Washington is rather strange — less a moral or economic argument than an expression of indifference. “These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been ‘we need to go back to normal here at some point,'” argues Representative Tom Cole. “[W]hat we did was never intended to be permanent. It was intended to be a very temporary solution to a very temporary crisis,” echoes Representative Rob Woodall. Of course nobody intended for the crisis of mass unemployment to last five years. Nobody intended for the crisis to happen at all. It is simply weird to argue that, since the problem has gone on longer than intended, the response to the problem must end as well. The fire trucks don’t shut off the hoses simply because the fire should have been put out by now.

Yet the weirdness, far from being random, reveals something deeper at work. The most obvious thing, of course, is a general lack of concern for the fate of the unemployed — or, at least, a casual assumption that the unemployed themselves must be to blame for their plight. But even a more generous reading of the Republican position, taking its most serious defenses at face value, reveals an intellectual hollowness. Half a decade into the economic crisis, the Republican Party has no serious ideas about the Great Recession.

One of the few Republicans to directly defend his party’s refusal to extend unemployment benefits is Rand Paul. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, Paul’s ideas about unemployment insurance are cracked. Paul has repeatedly cited studies that show that employers discriminate against job candidates who have been out of work a long time. Paul simply assumes that people are staying unemployed so they can continue collecting unemployment benefits. But the economics paper Paul cites, according to the economist who wrote it, suggests the opposite of his conclusion.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal editorial page gamely defends the Republican stance:

The Administration claims that every $1 of jobless benefits creates $1.80 in economic growth, based on the notorious “multiplier” in Keynesian economic models. This is the theory that you can increase employment by paying more people not to work, and that you can take money out of the private economy by taxes or borrowing without cost.

The argument here is that there’s a “cost” to “taking money out of the economy” to pay for unemployment benefits. What is that cost? Well, in normal conditions, higher deficit spending will cause interest rates to rise. But these are not normal conditions. Interests rates are as low as they can be. The zero bound is the policy dilemma of the moment. The Journal editorial page has been warning for years that rising interest rates are on their way, or already occurring. The utter failure of these predictions has not even slightly dented its jaunty confidence.

It is true that some research has shown that cutting off unemployment benefits can force the unemployed to search more aggressively (or desperately) for work — say, an out-of-work machinist might take a job for lower wages at the 7-11. But those studies all take place in the context of a normal economic cycle, not the mass unemployment we see today. The conditions of mass unemployment from the Great Recession dictate that cutting off benefits from the unemployed simply immiserates them because there are no jobs.

Republicans in North Carolina proactively demonstrated their party’s stance by cutting off benefits to the unemployed before it was tried elsewhere in the nation. The result was dismal: The state’s labor force is shrinking. Rather than getting jobs, the unemployed have simply stopped looking for them, because they don’t exist.

Sharp conservative ideas about the recession can be found on the margins of the political debate. (See, for instance, Michael Strain in the Weekly Standard.) It’s certainly possible to reconcile conservative doctrine about the size of government with specific plans to address mass unemployment. But Republicans in Congress have not bothered to adopt any of these alternative proposals. Nor have conservatives in general displayed much of an interest in the topic of unemployment benefits. There’s an asymmetry of partisan interest on the subject somewhat akin to Benghazi, which obsesses the right and bores the left. Republican thought on mass unemployment is a restaurant with tiny portions that taste terrible.

This is not to say that the GOP lacks any ideas about economic policy. Both parties have fairly well-defined ideas about the general role of taxes, spending, and regulation. The difference is that the Democratic Party also has a policy agenda that is specifically related to the special conditions of high unemployment and low interest rates. The Republicans are still merely asserting that their normal agenda applies just as well now as ever. The unique, dire conditions of the Great Recession shouldn’t be expected to undo all the party’s program, or to alter its general long-term ideas. (Democrats have not, and should not, given up their preference for universal health insurance, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and so on, nor should Republicans have to abandon their preference for the opposite.) What they lack is any legislative response to the economic crisis. They just want to get back to normal, and since normality has not arrived, they’d just as soon pretend it has.


By: Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, December 31, 2013

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bad News For The Jobless And America”: How Our Economy Lost $400 Million In One Week Alone

Long-term unemployment benefits expired on December 28, meaning an absence of checks this week for more than 1 million jobless Americans. That’s bad news for them, of course—but also the rest of us. According to a new analysis from the minority staff of the House Ways and Means Committee released Friday, $400 million was drained from state economies this week alone thanks to the lapse.

Unemployment benefits are one of the more effective forms of stimulus because the money is badly needed and thus spent right away. The Congressional Budget Office says 200,000 jobs will be lost this year if the benefits are not restored, and this week the damage began.

Big states were obviously the hardest hit, naturally: nearly $65 million came out of the California economy in one week alone, according to the analysis. And of course, states represented by Republicans who oppose the extension each suffered some economic harm. Senator John Cornyn twice blocked a vote on an unemployment insurance extension before the holiday recess, and his home state of Texas lost $21.8 million this week.

Yet Republicans, so far, have not expressed any desire to extend the benefits. “Every week that Republicans fail to act tens of thousands of additional long-term unemployed Americans lose this vital lifeline as they look to get back on their feet after the worst recession in generations, and the economy in each state is taking a hit,” said Representative Sander Levin, the ranking member on Ways and Means.

Senator Harry Reid has promised a vote early next week on a bill by Senators Jack Reed and Dean Heller to extend the benefits for three months, with no offsetting spending cut, so that a longer-term bill can be worked out. But Heller is the only known Senate GOP sponsor to date, and House Speaker John Boehner has said he doesn’t want any bill without a pay-for attached.

If that bill fails, Democrats have a couple options this month: an extension of benefits could perhaps be folded into either the farm bill, which is in conference negotiations, or into the several omnibus spending bills that need to be finalized soon. In those latter two cases, Republicans would no doubt extract some sort of price from Democrats for extended benefits, but perhaps a solution is still possible.

But, again, Republicans seem to have other plans. House majority leader Eric Cantor announced Thursday his plans for the new year: yet another vote to modify Obamacare, this time adding new security requirements to the health insurance exchanges. The White House has said there is no danger of breaches, and some observers, like Steve Benen, think Cantor’s bill is simply a ploy to scare people away from the exchanges.

In any case, while Cantor fiddles around with his messaging bill on Obamacare (which will never be signed into law), his home state of Virginia lost $2.8 million in economic activity this week, as 9,700 people lost benefits. That’s going to be hard to justify as time goes on, both for Cantor and his colleagues.


By: George Zornick, The Nation, January 3, 2014

January 5, 2014 Posted by | Economy, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Job One, Helping The Jobless”: Can Congress Pass An Unemployment Insurance Extension?

When extended Unemployment Insurance benefits expired late last month, 1.3 million jobless Americans immediately lost that bit of safety net; if Congress fails to act, another 3.6 million Americans will lose this support by the end of 2014. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently said that on Monday the Senate will take up a temporary extension. Getting it done would not only be smart economics but it’s also simply the right thing to do.

Many on the right oppose extending benefits under the deeply dubious theory that too much unemployment compensation makes the social safety net a comfy hammock, to borrow Paul Ryan’s evocative simile. Why would people work, the theory goes, when they can get paid to not work? So people like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul paint opposition to extended benefits as being rooted in concern for the jobless who suffer under the seductive yolk of big government’s helping hand – never mind that the study he cites doesn’t say what he says it says. And never mind that in order to receive jobless benefits, you have to be actively seeking a job, meaning that cutting benefits could actually discourage people from continuing to look for work. And never mind the paltry nature of support. As I wrote in my column last month:

The National Employment Law Project notes that “while the average American family spends $1,407 per month on housing alone, the average monthly extension benefit is only $1,166.” Still the modest sums help: According to the Council of Economic Advisers, in 2012 alone unemployment insurance benefits “lifted an estimated 2.5 million people out of poverty.” Further, the National Employment Law Project estimates, 446,000 of those people were children.

If members of Congress (and for that matter the yammering class) need any further evidence of the importance of extending benefits, the state of North Carolina has been unkind enough to conduct an experiment in punishing the unemployed. Last February the state enacted a law which not only slashed the duration (from 26 weeks to 12-20 weeks) and amount (from a maximum of $535 to $350 per week) of unemployment benefits, but also managed to run afoul of the federal jobless program, disqualifying North Carolinians from receiving those benefits.

So what happened when the lazy parasites were forced to stop suckling at the governmental teet? BloombergBusinessweek’s Joshua Green has a good piece today answering that question:

At first glance, the effect appears to be positive. North Carolina’s unemployment rate dropped dramatically, from 8.8 percent to 7.4 percent between July and November. By comparison, the national unemployment rate fell by 0.6 percent over the same period. A closer look, however, suggests that North Carolina’s unemployment numbers have fallen not because the long-term jobless have found work but because they’ve quit looking altogether. As a result, the state no longer counts them as unemployed.

As John Quinterno of the economic research firm South by North Strategies tells Green, while the number of unemployed in the state fell by nearly 102,000 year over year, 95,000 of those people aren’t counted as jobless not because they found jobs but because they stopped looking. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s food banks are getting overwhelmed, reports Bloomberg’s Evan Soltas, who quotes one food bank director who oversees seven counties and 230 organizations as saying that “some of our member agencies have been able to meet that need, but many have not.”

So what are the odds of Congress doing the right thing? As with many prominent issues these days, Democrats have the public on their side – according to a poll by the Democratic firm Hart Research, 55 percent of voters want the benefits extended. In order to pass an extension through the Senate, Reid will need to peel off at least a handful of Republicans (he already has one – Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who is co-sponsoring the three month extension Reid is pushing). The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent has a good run-down of Republicans from either blue or purple states or from high unemployment red states who might vote with Reid. But, Sargent concludes:

The campaign to pressure Republicans into agreeing to extend UI has essentially amounted to an effort to shame them into it, by highlighting the huge numbers of their own constituents who stand to lose lifelines if they don’t act. Local press coverage has dramatically spotlighted the issue within states, as press compilations by Dems show.

But this doesn’t appear to be working with too many Republicans.

And even if the Senate passes the bill, odds remain long that House Republicans – who refused to include an extension when they cleared last year’s budget deal – will suddenly do the right thing.

If the GOP does block the extension, 2014 is off to a grim start for millions of Americans.


By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, January 2, 2013

January 3, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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