The Next Unemployment Benefits Fight: The Specious “Pay-For” Demand

Isaiah J. Poole

Now that the Senate has disarmed a filibuster threat and cleared the way for legislative debate on emergency extended unemployment benefits, it’s time to take on this specious Republican demand that an extension of these benefits have to be “paid for” – particularly by cuts in programs that aid many of the same people.

This is an obscenity. Senate Democrats should hold firm and just say no to the idea that economically struggling Americans should have to experience cuts in one form of aid in order to preserve another – while exempting the wealthiest Americans from having to “pay for” the tax breaks and aid that they receive.

Many Senate Republicans realize that blocking the continuation of extended unemployment altogether is a nonstarter in an economy that still only has one job for every three people who want one. Their arguments that extending an additional lifeline to the 4 million unemployed workers who have been looking for work for more than 27 weeks without success is somehow making these workers lazy and unwilling to work have been broadly debunked and ridiculed. Meanwhile, Congress’ decision to go on a Christmas break while allowing 1.3 million Americans to lose income they needed to care for themselves and their families was a particularly heartless act.

With that background, Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Susan Collins (Maine), Dean Heller (Nev.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Rob Portman (Ohio) today voted against allowing the extension to be filibustered.

Meanwhile, as The Hill reported, “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said before the vote that his party could accept extending the federal benefits, which go to unemployed people who have exhausted state benefits — but only if they were paid for. ‘Many on my side would like to see them extended without actually adding to the national debt,’ McConnell said on the Senate floor.”

What we’re talking about putting up for debate is $6.4 billion for three months of benefits. It is a pittance in the context of a $1 trillion federal budget for fiscal 2014. And McConnell and Senate Republicans want you to think it’s no big deal to expect Democrats to agree to shave something off of spending elsewhere to cover this modest cost.

But we know from experience that when Republicans say Democrats have to come up with a way to “pay for” a benefit for economically struggling Americans, the people who end up having to make the payment are other economically struggling Americans. That’s not right.

The budget deal that President Obama signed late last year sets aside $520 billion of the slightly over $1 trillion in spending for fiscal 2014 for defense, compared to $492 billion for nondefense programs. But no Republican has suggested that some of the profligacy that still characterizes Pentagon spending could be tightened to make room for helping people looking for work. Neither has any Republican suggested that one or more of the hundreds of tax breaks – really, tax expenditures – or subsidies enjoyed by wealthy Americans and big corporations could be ended to address the more urgent and compelling needs of the long-term unemployed.

The tax code contains exclusions and write-offs worth more than $1.1 trillion in 2014. By eliminating just one – the tax write-off corporations get by inflating the value of the stock options they give their corporate executives – and requiring companies to report the same value of their stock options to the Internal Revenue Service that they report to their stockholders, the government could raise the money it needs to cover the expected cost of extended unemployment benefits for a full year.

It’s a safe bet Republicans would reject such a proposal out of hand.

It’s worth repeating again that the problem with today’s economy is that there is too little demand, because there is not enough money in the hands of working-class people. We absolutely should be seizing the opportunity today to borrow money at today’s historically low interest rates and using that money to repair the damage that remains from the Great Recession, and help people who are still having a hard time regaining footing in a hostile economy. The time to pay for the repair job is when the repair is done and the economy is healthy for working people, not before.

Democrats have an opportunity to make that case and be seen as the defenders of the unemployed and of common sense. Encourage your member of the Senate to support extending unemployment benefits to the long-term jobless without preconditions.

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