Thankfully, earlier this week Congress fulfilled its (minimum) obligation to the long-term unemployed by passing an extension of federal unemployment benefits as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal.
But while that drama in Washington, D.C. comes to a close – for now – Republican legislators in North Carolina and their well-funded backers have a plan to drastically cut unemployment insurance for thousands of Tarheel families.
The proposal, first revealed in early December, would cut weekly benefit checks from $506 to $350. The benefit periods would be limited from 26 weeks to a sliding scale between 12 and 20 weeks. These changes constitute an overhaul of the state’s whole unemployment system:
“This is probably one of the most radical, if not the most radical, proposals in the country,” said Bill Rowe, advocacy director for the N.C. Justice Center, a Raleigh-based nonprofit.
The plan is similar to recommendations made by the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, who, not at all coincidentally, contributed to the campaigns of 17 out of 20 members of the legislative committee that produced the plan, according to IndyWeek.
But regardless of why Republican legislators are proposing these cuts, that fact remains that they would be devastating to families in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate is already above the national average of 9.1 percent.
Even at the current 26 weeks, unemployment benefits aren’t nearly sufficient. As of November 2012, the average length of unemployment in the United States was 40 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s the longest average unemployment length in the 60 years the BLS has been recording data.
And those statistics translate into real pain for families, even without the cuts Republicans are proposing. 1 in 10 children in North Carolina lived with a parent who was unemployed this past year. 118,000 children in the state lived with parents who were unemployed for six months or more.
MaryBe McMillan, secretary for the state chapter of AFL-CIO, says when the economy was booming in the late ’90s, employers got a tax break. “And now they want to rebuild the fund on the backs of workers,” she says. “I think that’s dead wrong.”
Unemployment benefits do not only provide crucial assistance to those most in need. They also constitute a stimulus to the local economy, as unemployed workers use the benefits as soon as they come in to pay bills, fill up their gas tanks, shop for groceries, and make the necessary purchases to keep themselves and their families afloat. Taking a chunk of that money away, as Republicans legislators are proposing, only serves to hurt North Carolina’s recovering economy.
In December, after being battered in the arena of public opinion, House Republicans reluctantly agreed to a short extension of unemployment insurance (UI) for the nation’s jobless workers. That reprieve runs out Feb. 29 and House Republicans are set to relaunch their attack on UI.
A conference is now underway between the Senate and House over two very different one-year extensions of the UI program passed late last year and the Republican bill would “slash federal benefits, impose harsh new restrictions and move to dismantle the essential lifeline of unemployment insurance,” writes Mitchell Hirsch of the National Employment Law Project (NELP).
Among other things the Republican UI bill would:
Slash federal UI by more than half in the highest unemployment states;
Allow mandatory drug testing of unemployment insurance claimants, stigmatizing jobless workers;
Make jobless workers pay for their reemployment services;
Deny benefits to those not fortunate enough to finish high school or GED; and
Let states reduce benefits and divert unemployment benefit funds to other uses.
Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee says House Republicans:
are threatening another round of brinksmanship by insisting on starting with a rerun of the approaches within the House Republican bill… Department of Labor data shows that 2.8 million Americans would lose unemployment benefits under the House Republican proposal compared to current law… Democrats won’t start from the premise that the unemployed are to blame for unemployment, that weeks can be slashed without harming workers in the hardest hit states.
NELP has published a detailed legislative analysis of the Republican bill, click here and you can click here to send a message to your member of Congress to reject the drastic cuts and restrictions in the Republican UI bill.
Having narrowly averted cutting off unemployment insurance to millions of Americans right before the holidays, Congress now returns to take up what should be a relatively simple task even for this Congress — a full reauthorization of federal unemployment insurance (UI), the payroll tax reduction and other provisions through 2012. But, as they did in December, some lawmakers are looking to revive House efforts to slash federal benefits, impose onerous new restrictions and move to dismantle the essential lifeline of unemployment insurance.
The stopgap two-month extension of the federal UI program will expire February 29th unless Congress acts on a full-year renewal. This week, the Joint Economic Committee issued a report on the benefits of continuing unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut. The report estimated that more than 3.3 million unemployed workers would be cut off of their UI benefits by June 2 without a renewal of the program (see page 4 for state-by-state estimates).
A 20-member Conference Committee of the House and Senate convened for the first time this week to begin work on a full year extension. The Committee is chaired by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), the lead sponsor of H.R. 3630, the House Republican bill that’s designed to drastically slash federal UI benefits while erecting harmful new barriers to benefits, making it harder for ordinary Americans to access their unemployment insurance.
The House H.R. 3630 proposals would:
* Slash federal UI by more than half in the highest unemployment states
* Allow mandatory drug testing of unemployment insurance claimants, stigmatizing jobless workers
* Make jobless workers pay for their reemployment services
* Deny benefits to those not fortunate enough to finish high school or GED
* Let states reduce benefits and divert unemployment benefit funds to other uses
The National Employment Law Project has published a detailed legislative analysis of these and other provisions being sought by House Republicans in H.R. 3630.
Public outcry, meanwhile, has been growing in support of a full renewal of unemployment insurance and against both the reckless cuts and the proposed new barriers to benefits. An Unemployedworkers.org action page has already generated a combined 96,000 email and fax messages to the members of the Congressional Conference Committee, and another 34,000 to Congressional leaders and other Members of Congress.
Tens of thousands of calls have been made to Congress through our dedicated toll-free line 888-245-3381.
House leaders had to, finally, accede to public pressure and drop their obstruction when Senate Republicans refused to take up the House version of H.R. 3630 back in December. Now, only strong public pressure will keep the Conference Committee from doing real damage to jobless workers, their families and the unemployment insurance system.
Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) gets it and is fighting for unemployed workers in the Conference Committee. Watch what Sen. Reed had to say about the unemployment extension issues during the Committee’s first meeting this week:
The following is a statement from Working America.
The recent move to block unemployment insurance, which is set to expire December 31st, will devastate millions of working families already struggling to get by in this Wall Street-created economic crisis.
As House Republicans take leave of their duties to the American people, and big banks and financiers enjoy their bailouts and record profits, jobless Americans will continue this holiday week and next to demand responsible governance from their lawmakers who claim to hold their interests at heart.
In places like New Mexico, Michigan, Ohio, Maine, Minnesota, Oregon and more, working families will gather together, make phone calls, and send messages to lawmakers pushing for immediate extension to unemployment insurance – an uncontroversial measure that keeps jobless people afloat in this scant job market and provides immediate economic stimulus to communities.
Fearing they didn’t have the votes to defeat a bipartisan Senate compromise that would extend unemployment insurance (UI) for long-term jobless workers and a payroll tax cut for workers, Republican House leaders scuttled a vote on the bill today. Then they left town for the holidays. Both the UI program and the tax cut expire Dec. 31.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) previously indicated he supported the compromise that passed the Senate 89-10 with 39 Republican votes. However, when the Republican tea party wing vociferously objected, he changed his tune and opposed the bill. Republican leaders then blocked an up or down vote and 229 Republicans voted to kill Senate bill through parliamentary trickery.
Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), says that the compromise was negotiated “with the involvement and blessing of the Speaker of the House.” She also says that Senate bill rebuffed attempts in an earlier House bill that scapegoated unemployed workers and “enacted dangerous changes to the basic UI program which undermined its very purpose and effectiveness.”
While a two-month deal is not ideal, time is running out to protect the unemployed from being victims of the worst partisan games Congress has ever seen. Congress is preparing to recess for five weeks. By the time members return to D.C. to begin negotiations anew, close to 1.8 million long-term unemployed will lose their only life-line. As Speaker Boehner well knows, this stalling tactic virtually guarantees that benefits for the long-term unemployed, those already hit hardest by the recession and slow recovery, will lapse for a dangerously long period of time.
Wondering why this Congress has an approval rating that has hit a historical-record low of 11 percent? Just check out the surreal means by which the mad Tea Party that runs the House Republican caucus halted unemployment insurance and middle-class tax cuts today.
In less than two weeks, the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits will both expire—a major hit to the economy next year. But the House, in this vote, showed themselves perfectly comfortable with that outcome.
As I go through the details of how this economic relief measure actually went down, let’s remember that this is not some abstract matter of legislative arcana, or a purely political battle. This is about the payroll taxes paid by 160 million working people and the unemployment insurance that millions of families of the jobless depend on. This may seem like a silly Washington story, but when you look at the actual lives and pocketbooks of working-class and middle-class people, it’s a devastating failure.
As I’ve said before, there should be an easy answer here: everyone in Congress should be able to agree to cleanly extend the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance. The Senate tried and failed, thanks to Republican filibusters, to pass longer-term extensions of these provisions on their own and through the American Jobs Act. Finally, this weekend, they passed a bipartisan two-month extension that would give them time to continue to negotiate over the long-term options.
That was the theory, anyway, until the hard right of the House GOP caucus decided not to accept the bipartisan deal. Late last night, Speaker John Boehner planned to bring the Senate bill to the floor with the intent of defeating it—but was afraid he wouldn’t have the votes to kill it outright.
All that the House has to do to make the bill officially ready to be signed into law is hold a simple up-or-down vote on the Senate’s bipartisan bill. But during a 3 a.m. meeting of the House Rules Committee last night, the Republican majority devised a different plan — twist the voting procedure so that the Senate’s bill can be rejected while allowing the Republicans to save face by technically voting “aye.”
And the plan succeeded. In a 229-193 vote, the House Republicans killed the bipartisan Senate bill, in a downright acrobatic feat of legislative farce:
They didn’t give that bill an up-or-down vote. They gave it a down-or-down vote. The question before the House wasn’t “do you agree with the Senate bill?” It was “do you disagree with the Senate bill?” Thus a “yes” vote was actually a vote against extending the payroll tax cut and vice-versa; and even if the majority of the House had supported the Senate bill, it wouldn’t have passed. It was set up to fail.
So what happens now? The Senate is out of session, which means the House is kicking the issue back to an empty chamber. The House Republicans are insisting on the passage of their own bill, which would have cut 3.3 million people off of unemployment benefits, among other bad provisions.
There are 11 days to go, and Christmas hits at the end of this week. People who are depending on the economic boost of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance—like Working America’s 3 million members, half a million of whom are unemployed—can’t wait around for the House Republicans to grow up. Is it any wonder that 9 out of 10 Americans aren’t happy with their representatives?
This shouldn’t be particularly complicated. Two key policies keeping working families afloat—a temporary cut in the payroll tax and an extension of the time people out of work can draw unemployment insurance—are set to expire in a matter of days, pulling money out of the pockets of millions.
Congress had an easy choice available. Since our economy continues to struggle with high joblessness and low consumer demand, our elected leaders should have simply renewed these policies. But never underestimate the hostility of the House Republican majority to simple governance and their indifference to the economic condition of working-class people.
On Saturday, the U.S. Senate passed—after a lot of negotiation—a bipartisan compromise that would extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance in the short term. It’s not perfect, but it would at least avoid pulling the rug out from under 160 million workers and millions of unemployed people. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, asked Senators of both parties to come to a compromise, which passed 89-10, on the assumption that the House would vote on the same bill today.
But since nothing can be simple with this Congress, not even the most no-brainer extension of basic economic relief, House Republicans may very well defeat the compromise bill tonight. The political-journalism term of art for this might be “playing hardball,” but the more accurate term is “throwing a tantrum.”
It’s worth noting that the House Republicans’ strategy here is to bundle together the important payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance extensions with unrelated riders aimed at scoring political points. This is sure to upset people who signed this pledge, right?
We will end the practice of packaging unpopular bills with “must-pass” legislation to circumvent the will of the American people. Instead, we will advance major legislation one issue at a time.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent nails it: the caucus that controls the U.S. House is “extreme, intransigent, self-indulgent and hostile to basic norms of governing.” To that I’d only add “clearly completely uninterested in the real-world effects of their decisions.”
Terry Miale, a communications systems engineer, lost nearly everything when she lost her job.
My whole life is gone. My retirement is gone. My house is gone. For a period of time, I lost my mental health because I went into a deep depression.
Even though she worked 30 years in her field, it took Miale four years to get re-employed. So Miale can’t understand why Republican leaders in Congress just won’t extend unemployment insurance (UI) to long-term unemployed workers who can’t find jobs in an economy in which there are more than four workers for every one job.
When I needed unemployment benefits, they were there. I really think that it isn’t fair to pull a lifeline out from under people that are just now having to collect unemployment benefits. It’s hard enough to live on unemployment benefits, let alone live with none.
Unless UI is extended this month, 2 million jobless people will lose their lifeline. Those in Congress blocking the UI extension should be made to feel what it’s like to be unemployed.
It bears repeating, every day: if Congress doesn’t act, six million people will lose unemployment insurance benefits at the end of the year. That’s six million people who will find it harder to make ends meet, and six million fewer people who can support their community’s economy.
Half of America is poor or low-income and wide majorities say that our economic and political systems are unfairly tilted towards the rich. It’s time we start listening and responding to the voices of the people who are actually impacted by our political decisions—not just the politicians, pundits and lobbyists who set the agenda in Washington. Here are two.
Shonda, a Working America member from Ohio, has been unemployed for nearly two years, and has relied on her unemployment insurance to help care for her ailing mother.
Karen, a Working America member and a former bank teller from Pennsylvania, has been unemployed for 13 months.
In Washington, they’re really making their priorities clear. Either their idea of how the economy works is totally backwards or they’re just not interested in policies that actually help working-class and middle-class people like Karen and Shonda.