Conservative Unemployment Roadblock Will Cost States Millions

Isaiah J. Poole

The latest bit of obstruction being staged by a Senate conservative, done in the name of limiting federal spending, is going to end up costing cash-strapped states millions of dollars as well as potentially causing millions of workers to lose their unemployment benefits.

Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., earlier today continued his blockage of an extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits that are due to expire this weekend. Meanwhile, the Senate has adjourned until Monday, with no votes scheduled until Tuesday.

That means that states will now start cutting off payments to people receiving federally funded extended unemployment benefits, paid to people who have exhausted their standard 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. A total of about 5 million people depend on those benefits today. They won’t all be cut off at once, but several hundred thousand stand to lose benefits effective this weekend, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies—the trade group for state unemployment offices—and that number will grow each week that Bunning and his conservative allies in the Senate succeed in blocking action on a benefit extension.

Unemployed people will also lose a $25-a-week add-on to their unemployment checks that was authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill.

The human cost is obvious: People who have been searching for work unsuccessfully for six months or more are suddenly going to lose their only means of income. And that’s going to be a lot of people in a state like Bunning’s Kentucky, where the unemployment rate is 10.7 percent, compared to 9.7 percent nationally. Nationally, 6.3 million people have been out of work for more than 27 weeks, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But there are significant costs to cash-strapped states, which are going to have to start sending out notices Monday to many of the people who will lose eligibility under these programs. The National Association of State Workforce Agencies doesn’t have a solid estimate on those administrative costs, but “it’s certainly millions,” said spokesman Ben Fendler, and “the magnitude of the problem will increase significantly if the programs are not reenacted immediately,” because new people will lose their eligibility for extended benefits at the rate of 150,000 a week.

There is an ignominious bit of history here, according to Judy Conti at the National Employment Law Project:

For the first time since the enactment of the unemployment insurance system during the Great Depression, there will be no federal extensions when the unemployment rate was above 8 percent. This is a catastrophe and tragedy of epic proportion. While a debate and discussion about the deficit may be an appropriate exercise for the Senate, it should not be done at the expense of 1.2 million unemployed workers, especially when, as Mr. Bunning admitted on the floor, he knows he will lose the debate and he knows that these benefits are likely to be extended sooner rather than later. His misguided and cruel stunt on the floor last night will end up having NO impact at all on the federal deficit, whereas it may push unemployed workers all over the country over a financial ledge from which they cannot recover. And the cost to state governments, which will have to expend considerable overtime taking down their programs, and even more to put them back in place, will be staggering at a time when they can least afford it. So Mr. Bunning accomplished nothing for the federal deficit, but certainly added to the deficit of his own state’s coffers as well as its unemployed workers.

Bunning’s complaint is that the $10 billion cost of the benefit extension should be paid out of federal stimulus funds. Bunning and other Senate conservatives opposed the Recovery Act from the very beginning, so they are looking for any opening to shut it down. To do so would be self-defeating; every Recovery Act dollar Congress appropriated last year that is not already being drained away in tax relief needs to be deployed in job-creating projects. The more money spent on job creation, the less of a problem unemployment insurance becomes. Plus, that would never fly in the House, where progressives and members of the Congressional Black Caucus are bristling at the Senate-passed $15 billion tax and spending package, arguing it is not a “jobs bill” as the Senate leadership is characterizing it. The House has already passed a far more robust, $85 billion bill.

The real shame is that in the face of what is certainly an emergency for people who are about to lose their ability to pay their housing bill or buy groceries, the Senate leadership decided to adjourn for the weekend rather than force a showdown on this issue. David Waldman at Daily Kos was justifiably furious:

A one-man filibuster is the kind a concerted effort to “make them filibuster” is most likely to break. But instead, no one’s even trying anymore. … the Senate appears to have adjourned for the weekend. Bunning has won for the day, and [Sen. Richard] Durbin’s threat [to force regular votes on a motion to break the filibuster] has shockingly failed to materialize at all. The extent of Bunning’s punishment: he missed prime time TeeVee last night.

What a way to reinforce the narrative that Washington can’t get anything done and is tone deaf to the needs of working people. But let’s not lose sight of the fundamental issue: Senate conservatives would rather see Bunning grandstand over federal spending, even if that grandstanding results in more taxpayer spending and more human suffering than casting a simple vote in favor of a measure even Bunning says he does not oppose.

It’s obstruction for the sake of obstruction, and the rage that will build among unemployed people whose lifelines will begin to be cut this weekend should be directed first at Bunning and the Party of No.

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