Senators, The Unemployed Have A Job For You

Isaiah J. Poole

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, what will you say to Jeff Sumner of Louisville when the lights go out in his house at the end of this week? How proud will you be of your votes against extending unemployment insurance to him and millions of other workers?

Sumner is one of the more than 2 million people who have lost their unemployment benefits because of a weeks-old Senate filibuster against their extension led by McConnell, the chamber’s minority leader. If the Senate does not break that filibuster this week, Sumner, who lost his extended unemployment benefits when Republicans blocked their continued authorization in early June, loses the utilities in his house. Shortly after that, he told me Friday, he will lose his house. He will be homeless.

Sumner is also one of the 6.75 million people who have been unemployed for more than six months. These are the people, according to some Republican leaders, who believe that the extension of unemployment benefits is responsible for so many unemployed people being out of work (as Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle said, the unemployed are “spoiled” by those benefits), not the fact that there were only 3 million job openings (in April 2010) for nearly 15 million unemployed workers.

But even the least crass of the conservative justifications for this obstruction—that continued federal spending on unemployment benefits should be “paid for” by cuts elsewhere in the budget—is a cruel fiction for the people, like the ones featured in our audio report, who have applied for hundreds of jobs, have shown themselves willing to do almost anything for a paycheck, and yet are not being given a chance to grasp even the bottom rung of the economic ladder. As Jyl Foster, a former radio announcer who has been out of work for over a year, told me in reaction to the conservative’s oft-used line about not passing today’s debt to their grandchildren, “There are so many people right now who are hurting, and they’re worried about their kid’s grandkids? That just makes my blood boil. It hurts my heart.”

Not to mention that devastating the lives of today’s unemployed workers is a helluva way of showing how much you care for future generations.

Yet conservative leaders believe that today’s high unemployment is the right vehicle to continue their assault on government. How else to explain the resurrection of Arthur Laffer in the Wall Street Journal last week, he of the now-discredited “Laffer curve.” This time, he was not only asserting, with no obvious basis in fact, that extending unemployment benefits makes “being unemployed either more attractive or less unattractive, and thereby lead to higher unemployment,” but he was suggesting that the government should instead “declare a federal tax holiday for 18 months,” which he says would cut federal revenues by $2.4 trillion annually. The entire federal budget in 2010 was $3.5 trillion. You see what he’s up to. (The Seminal, like me, found it “hard to know where to begin in tackling the various strawman and out right fallacious arguments Laffer uses in this opinion piece.”)

Laffer may be on the edge of conservative thought on his tax holiday idea, but basically Laffer and conservatives holding up unemployment extension and job-creation legislation in the Senate are on the same twisted wavelength. Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, a member of the unemployment-checks-make-you-lazy coalition, on Sunday said that while extended unemployment benefits should not be allowed to add to the federal deficit, tax cuts should. He said this in response to a question about continuing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which if Congress opts to cancel their planned expiration would add $678 billion to the deficit.

There you have it. Benefits totaling $35 billion to keep unemployed people from being evicted from their homes for facing some other financial calamity is an expense we can’t afford. But we can afford to let wealthy people and corporations continue to escape paying $678 billion in taxes. Or we can afford to eliminate the estate tax, another conservative obsession. Or we can afford to continue to tax billionaire hedge-fund managers and other Wall Street gamblers at a lower rate than the five-figure secretaries in their offices.

The unemployed do not ask for much. They want conservatives in Congress to stop caricaturing them and using them to score ideological points. They want Congress to act with the same urgency with which they acted in 2008 and 2009 when the banking system was melting down. This week, it is time to break the filibuster against unemployment benefits. Next, authorize aid to the states to cover the mandatory Medicaid and children’s health care costs that are forcing therm to cut vital programs elsewhere in the budget. Then, pass the Local Jobs for America Act, which would pour $100 billion into states and localities to support public service jobs in both government and the private sector.

The choice is clear: Address the needs of the unemployed for immediate aid and an eventual job, or watch the economy continue to fester as conservatives succeed in dragging the nation backwards.

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