Shameless Obstruction

If you were up late watching the Senate on C-SPAN last night (yes, I was) you would have witnessed an astonishing case of shameless obstruction by Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky.

In an effort to enact emergency legislation to extend the expanded federal unemployment insurance and COBRA health subsidies beyond February 28, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) brought a series of unanimous consent requests to act on the bill. Every request was met with an objection by Bunning, a stunt he’d begun on Wednesday.

Because of Bunning’s obstruction it is likely that current jobless aid program extensions will expire this Sunday. More than one million long-term jobless face the expiration of these benefits unless Congress can quickly pass an emergency, retroactive extension either this weekend or early next week.

Following each objection by Bunning last night, Senate Democrats led by Durbin responded with passionate pleas on behalf of America’s unemployed millions, and denunciations of Bunning’s cold hypocrisy. Senators Sanders (D-VT), McCaskill (D-MO), Merkley (D-OR), Begich (D-AK), Whitehouse (D-RI) and Reed (D-RI) joined Durbin in delivering some of the most emotionally charged defenses of hard-working Americans heard on the Senate floor in years.

Earlier in the day, an emergency one-month jobless aid extension passed the House by a voice vote.

Then came the series of obstructing objections by Bunning, reportedly peppered with a choice, overheard expletive.

In a colloquy with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Jeff Merkley, a freshman Democrat from Oregon, was pleading for Bunning to drop his objection, when the Kentucky Republican got fed up.

“Tough s—t,” Bunning said as he was seated in the back row, overheard by the floor staff and others in attendance.

During the hours of back-and-forth objections from Bunning and responses from Democrats, Bunning complained that he was missing the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game.

From The New York Times story: Bunning Blocks Jobless Aid in Senate:

12:06 a.m. | Updated The Senate clash over the unemployment benefits ended just before midnight Thursday with Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, refusing to lift his objection, meaning the jobless aid – for however short a time – will run out Sunday night unless a deal is reached Friday.

As the fight drew to a close, Mr. Bunning complained he had been ambushed by the Democrats and was forced to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina basketball game.

Over at Congress Matters today David Waldman noted this about Bunning:

… he’s blocking unemployment benefits for those hard hit by the recession, when he himself, as a Hall of Fame pitcher, can generate cash for himself any time he needs it (and often does) just by signing his name to a baseball. Maybe not everyone in America can turn a pen into an ATM, Jimbo.

Still lurking is Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) who threatens to block future jobless aid extensions, as well as additional jobs legislation, unless he can advance a plan to cut taxes for heirs of multi-millionaires.

It is likely that Senate Democrats will still need a procedural vote on cloture before getting to vote on the one-month emergency jobless benefits extension, something that might not come until next Tuesday — unless the Senate remains in session this weekend.

We’ll continue to keep you posted.

Meanwhile, if you would like to share your thoughts with them by phone:
Sen. Jim Bunning 202-224-4343
Sen. Jon Kyl (202) 224-4521

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Jobless Benefits Extension: Bunning Has Company

Earlier today we reported that Jim Bunning is blocking the much-needed unemployment insurance extension because of a dispute over how it would be funded.

That’s his reason for cutting off (at least temporarily) a lifeline to more than a million people.

Arizona Senator Jon Kyl has a different reason: He’ll be holding America’s job-seekers hostage to the interests of America’s multi-millionaires, blocking the extension of unemployment benefits until he gets an estate tax bill he likes; namely, one that benefits the very wealthy.

This is a fairly shocking admission of priorities. 1.1 million workers are scheduled to have their unemployment benefits expire in the next month, with 2.7 million on track to lose them by April, while unemployment is still at 9.7 percent and there are six unemployed workers for every job opening. 6.3 million Americans have been unemployed for six months or longer, which is the most since the government began keeping track in 1948 and “more than double the toll in the next-worst period, in the early 1980s.” Yet Kyl is willing to hold unemployment benefits hostage in order to fashion a tax cut for heirs of the very wealthiest estates.

Due to a Bush-era budgeting gimmick, the estate tax is currently expired, but it is set to come back in 2011 at the Clinton-era level, which Kyl has an intense interest in preventing. His proposal to slash the estate tax rate and increase its exemption would cost $250 billion over ten years, with 99 percent of the benefit going to the heirs of multi-millionaires. Under 2009 law, only 0.2 percent of estates are subject to the estate tax at all.

This is just unbelievably despicable. Kyl is willing to cut off the meager benefits keeping struggling families afloat in order to benefit the wealthiest 0.2% of people, while costing the government money. In Kyl’s home state of Arizona, 28,832 people will lose their benefits in March, a number that will rise to 120,166 by June.

Give Sen. Kyl a call, why don’t you, and ask why he’s holding struggling job-seekers hostage to the interests of people who already have so much money they will never need to work. Kyl’s office phone number is (202) 224-4521. Call now.

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Anthem: Increasing Profit, Not Preventing Loss

So, Anthem Blue Cross totally needed to raise rates on individual policy holders in California by up to 39%. They were losing money, people! (On the individual market in California, while making giant profits overall.) Just trying to staunch the bleeding! (They told us.)

Internal emails tell a different story. You might need to sit down before reading this, but: The rate increases were to increase profits, not minimize loss. Who could’ve guessed?

This came out yesterday at a hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee, where Representatives Waxman and Stupak read out some internal Anthem emails.

– “The average increase is 23 percent and is intended to return California to a target profits of 7 percent, versus 5 percent this year.” [WellPoint email, October 7, 2009]

– “We’re asking for premiums that would put us $40 million favorable…if we get the increases on time, we will see an opt gain upside of $30 million downgrades and rate cap.” [WellPoint email, November 2, 2009]

– “[W]e needed to reach agreement on filing strategy quickly — specifically in the area of do we file wth a cushion allowed for negotiations.” [WellPoint email, 10/24/2009]

Company-wide profits aren’t enough for them. Profits in California aren’t enough for them. No, every single area of business has to be profitable for them. What’s next? How far does it get subdivided? “Well, yes, we were making money on individual policyholders, but we weren’t making money on individual policyholders over 60, so we had to raise their rates by 73%”?

This is why there needs to be meaningful competition and meaningful cost controls. This is why a public insurance option is the best choice – because when individual policy holders got their letters announcing a 39% increase, they’d have somewhere to go. And don’t you think maybe that would make Anthem rethink whether to send the letters to begin with?

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Who Is Blocking Emergency Jobless Aid Extension?

According to Reuters, attempts by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to move an emergency unemployment aid extension in the Senate are being thwarted:

Reid had hoped to quickly pass a short-term extension of unemployment benefits for more than a million people to ensure they are not terminated at the end of February, but Republican Senator Jim Bunning blocked it.

Policy advocates on Capitol Hill this morning confirmed that Sen. Bunning (R-KY) is currently holding up an emergency measure to extend the expanded federal support for unemployment insurance and COBRA subsidies set to expire in three days.

A spokesman for Senator Bunning said this morning that Bunning had objected to Senator Reid’s unanimous consent request to proceed on the measure, citing a dispute over how it should be funded.

Kentucky’s jobless rate, which exceeds the national average, increased to 10.7% in December, the last month of available state statistics. Numerous counties in Kentucky report unemployment rates of 13% or more, as can be seen on this Washington Post interactive map of unemployment rates by state and county. (click on the map to zoom in)
Several counties in rural eastern Kentucky have jobless rates of 15% or higher, including Magoffin County at 21.4%.

As we have been reporting here for weeks one million unemployed Americans will lose their extended benefits and COBRA health insurance subsidies immediately if Congress fails to act before February 28.

And while Senate Majority Leader Reid is working on a larger, year-long jobless benefits extension, the emergency one-month extension needed right now is being blocked by Republican Senator Bunning.

Call Senator Bunning’s office at 202-224-4343. Tell Senator Bunning to stop blocking the emergency jobless benefits extension for the more than 221,000 out-of-work Kentuckians and the millions of jobless Americans across the country.

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Who is the Middle Class?

Have you been wondering about the lack of serious coverage by the media of the financial crisis facing the middle class? As David Sirota shows us, the media doesn’t seem to understand who the middle class are:

Last year, the New York Times told us it’s difficult for people to make ends meet on $500,000 a year, and the Washington Post insisted that it’s hard to “squeak by” on $300,000 a year. Now the Denver Post insists that if you make $250,000 a year, you may only be “middle class”

Where does utter disconnect with reality come from? And why does it exist?

Media voices perpetuate these myths of the impoverished wealthy, in part, because many media voices are themselves wealthy — and there’s no more powerful class solidarity than that which exists among the rich.

Indeed, the wealthy don’t just convince themselves they aren’t wealthy, they try to create the perception among themselves, politicians and the public at large that they are “middle class” and thus persecuted by taxes. Put another way, the real danger of the New York Times, Washington Post and Denver Post article floating the idea of the wealthy as not wealthy is in skewing our political debate over economics. If someone making $500,000 is just “getting by,” and someone making $300,000 is barely “squeaking by” and someone making $250,000 is in the persecuted “middle class,” then having any fact-based discussion about tax inequities becomes that much harder.

The Wall St. Journal sings a slightly different tune:

For those wondering why luxury spending is back even as unemployment hovers close to 10%, consider this: unemployment among the affluent is only 3%.

According to a study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Studies, unemployment for those in the top income decile–individuals earning more than $150,000 a year–was 3% in the fourth quarter of 2009.

According to the WSJ, those in the top income bracket are earning $150,000+ a year, which flies in the face of the assertions that $250,00 is middle class.

The income gap in the US has been increasing since the 1970′s when wages began to stagnate.

So, either the media is engaging in some misdirection in order to help the wealthy keep from paying their fair share of taxes, OR, the definition of the middle class is changing dramatically, and a whole lot of folks are finding out that they are the new poor.


Still No Jobless Benefits Extension (Yet)

With time rapidly running out for millions of jobless Americans facing the end of critical benefits programs February 28, the Senate today continued its piecemeal approach to the massive unemployment crisis by passing a rather small tax-break for hiring plan.

Urgently needed extensions of the expanded unemployment insurance and COBRA health subsidies beyond the end of February were not included. But it appears that another piecemeal approach to those benefit extensions may be in the works.

The jobs bill did not include an extension of expiring unemployment insurance and COBRA health insurance subsidies. A Democratic aide said that leaders plan to pass a short-term extension of unemployment insurance and COBRA but Reid said Wednesday his plan is to eventually pass a year-long extension.

What are they talking about? Most likely a one-month emergency jobless benefits extension, during which they’ll negotiate the provisions of the year-long extension. That just might give opponents the time to pressure for reduced benefits and more corporate tax breaks.

We need to keep the heat on the Senate. Call your Senators and tell them to extend the jobless benefit programs through 2010 immediately and provide needed fiscal relief to state and local governments.

If you don’t think there are some powerful, big money interests who’d like nothing better than to cut off benefits to the 11 million Americans now receiving jobless aid, check out this segment from Monday’s CNBC ‘Street Signs’ hosted by Erin Burnett. It features unemployment benefits advocate Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), one of our key allies, and hedge fund economist John Makin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. I’ve extracted a few quotes below. The segment is called Funding the Jobless:

It’s darn clear that the ‘Street’ they’re talking about in the show’s title ‘Street Signs’ isn’t ‘Main Street’.

In her lead-in Ms Burnett asks Mr. Makin if it’s time to stop supporting unemployment insurance payments:

“Why may it be time to reconsider?”

Makin replies:

“Well, the cost is one good reason”

and proceeds to present the issue as a choice between funding jobless benefits or tax breaks for businesses to hire.

NELP’s Judy Conti responds:

“These benefits, first and foremost are job creation. Extending unemployment benefits through the end of this year will create 800,000 jobs.”

“For every dollar that is spent on unemployment benefits the Congressional Budget Office tells us that that dollar creates one dollar and ninety cents in economic stimulus for local communities.
If we were to let that money lapse, we would be abandoning the families that are supporting themselves on these benefits, but we’d abandon the communities as well.”

She’s right on all counts. Her opponent in this segment, John Makin, it should be noted, is on the payroll at Caxton Associates, one of the world’s largest private hedge funds, headed by conservative-supporting billionaire Bruce Kovner, ranked among the richest people in the country.

A stark contrast between the advocates for ‘Main Street’ and the super-rich on Wall Street.

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$20.3 Billion

Last year, Wall Street made $55 billion in profits and gave out $20.3 billion in bonuses, 17% more than in 2008.

Average taxable bonuses on Wall Street rose to $123,850 in 2009, DiNapoli said. Compensation at Goldman Sachs Group Inc, JPMorgan Chase & Co and Morgan Stanley, three of New York’s biggest banks, rose 31 percent, he added.

Mother Jones has a few suggestions for things that $20 billion could have been better spent on:

  1. You could pay the salaries of more than 390,000 public school teachers across the country.
  2. You could close nearly all of California’s gaping budget hole.
  3. You could almost cover unemployment-fund shortfalls, now nearing $25 billion, in 25 different states.

Mother Jones has more; I bet most of us could think of ways to add to their list.


Interesting Things Around the Internet

  • What does the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act mean for you?
  • What is Timothy Geithner’s record as Treasury Secretary?
  • Robert Pollin in The Nation:

    Here is what we need: a commitment from the Obama administration to create 18 million new jobs over the remaining three years of the presidential term. That would mean an average increase of about 500,000 jobs per month, or a bit more than 4 percent growth in job creation over the next three years. This can be done by combining two broad types of initiatives: measures to buttress the economy’s floor and thereby prevent another 2008-type collapse, and measures to inject job-generating investments into the economy. If such initiatives are successful, the official unemployment rate will stand at around 4 percent when Obama runs for re-election in November 2012.

  • The public option remains more popular than the Senate health care reform plan in several key states.
  • This is fantastic, and hopefully will be quickly imitated by many other counties, cities, and states:

    Miami-Dade County became the first U.S. county to outlaw wage theft last week. The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to give workers a voice when they are unpaid or underpaid.
    Under the new law, if an employer is holding back tips, paying less than minimum wage, bouncing paychecks, the county can step in and help workers get back pay.

The States Need an Unemployment Insurance Extension

Though the Senate reached cloture on a jobs bill yesterday afternoon, they still have yet to vote on extending unemployment insurance. As we’ve said ad infinitum, with the latest extension ending February 28, a million job-seekers could lose their benefits in March alone.

NELP points to what that means for the states. For instance,

  • In California, 201,274 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 855,529.
  • In Florida, 105,016 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 415, 714.
  • In Indiana, 38,360 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 160,279.
  • In Massachusetts, 36,781 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 153,089.
  • In Maine, 4,016 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 18,592.
  • In Michigan, 61,990 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 225,708.
  • In Virginia, 21,761 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 91,002.
  • In Wisconsin, 27,269 jobless workers will lose state or federal benefits in March without an extension. By June, the number will have risen to 127,093.

And don’t forget that every dollar of unemployment benefits spent results in $1.69 of economic stimulus in the community.

Now, we’re hearing, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated that, rather than the 15-day extension being discussed yesterday, they’ll be voting on a 30-day extension. Gosh, thanks, Sen. Reid, but we’d really rather have an extension to the end of 2010. Otherwise, the Senate will be clogged up voting on this very basic, necessary issue every month or every three months, millions will continue to live in uncertainty, and the Senate will be even less likely to move forward.

So please, call your senators. Urge them to vote for an unemployment insurance extension—and let them know that these 15- and 30-day half-measures are inadequate. As they struggle to find work in an economy in which there are 6.4 workers for every single job opening, America’s job-seekers need to know that their meager insurance against disaster is guaranteed for more than 30 days at a time.

Talking Points

  • 26 million Americans are unemployed or don’t have the full-time work they need to support their families.
  • Up to 800,000 jobs will be lost nationwide if benefits are not extended through the end of 2010.
  • Every $1 of unemployment insurance benefits that is spent results in $1.69 in economic stimulus in the community.

Call now.


Urgent Action: Tell the Senate to Extend Unemployment Insurance

Can you believe the Senate still hasn’t extended unemployment insurance? Benefits start to run out for a million job-seekers in a week, and some states have begun the process of taking those people off the rolls and telling them they will no longer have the check they depend on to get by while finding a new job. This did not sneak up on us. We here had plenty of time to see it coming, and the Senate should have had plenty of time to act.

After losing a week of work to the massive snowstorms that paralyzed Washington, DC, the Senate went on a scheduled recess for a week. Now they’re turning their attention to unemployment again—but millions of people waiting to hear if they’ll be able to pay for food and housing next month have been able to think of little else during these weeks.

And now comes the news that the Senate is expected to only pass a 15-day extension.

While a 15-day extension will allow people to continue receiving aid, states hundreds of thousands of people will still receive notices from state unemployment offices saying that they will stop receiving aid.

Many people will be confused and not realize that they are indeed eligible for additional unemployment benefits. This will cause people to miss required steps for applying for benefits, such as documenting applying for jobs. Others will become confused and simply not file for benefits anymore. Thousands of people will effectively be disenfranchised due to this weak 15-day extension, which does nothing substantial to meet the jobs crisis this country faces.

Furthermore, the Senate’s failure to pass a long-term unemployment extension, along the lines of the six-month extension the House passed earlier this year, would mean states already broke will waste lots of money sending out confusing notices, first to say that unemployment benefits were canceled, then to say their benefits are restored, then to say they are about to be canceled again.

Meanwhile, governors are at the White House this week begging for more money from the federal government. Since states by law are not allowed to go into debt, without federal aid they will have to cut essential services in order to balance their budgets. States face a $357 billion budget shortfall and local governments are facing an additional $80 billion in budget deficits.

Can you imagine? With huge long-term unemployment, this could cause chaos.

So it’s time, once again, to call your senators. How many times do they expect us to go through this cycle? They pass an extension that’s not nearly long enough. Almost as soon as it takes effect, we have to start pressuring them again. They drag it out to the bitter end. Jobless workers face more uncertainty, and possibly go through a month without benefits, pulling them even deeper into debt.

Let your senators know these patchwork, piecemeal responses to the needs of tens of millions of struggling families are not enough. We need unemployment insurance to be extended through 2010, so that we can turn our attention to real economic recovery, for the country, for communities, and for families.

Talking Points

  • 26 million Americans are unemployed or don’t have the full-time work they need to support their families.
  • Up to 800,000 jobs will be lost nationwide if benefits are not extended through the end of 2010.
  • Every $1 of unemployment insurance benefits that is spent results in $1.69 in economic stimulus in the community.

Call now.

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