When the House of Representatives held its unsuccessful vote earlier today on a measure to continue emergency unemployment benefits that are set to expire at the end of the month, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich, told Congressional Quarterly, “I don’t see how we can go home for Thanksgiving when . . . hundreds of thousands of people may not have a turkey on their table because they can’t afford it.”
That’s a great question. This would have been a good time for the House leadership to have its members put in the extra time necessary to do its part to make sure that 2 million people don’t lose their emergency benefits, which support them beyond the 26-week duration of regular unemployment insurance, before they find jobs in this weak economy.
As it was, the vote for extension was supported by well more than a majority of House members, 258-154. But the bill, which would have continued emergency unemployment benefits through February 2011, was passed under a procedure requiring a two-thirds vote that would have allowed the measure to pass without extended debate and amendments.
That does show that a measure brought up under regular order, which requires a simple majority, would pass handily. But there are still two major problems.
The first one is the Senate, where conservatives have held up extensions of unemployment benefits twice this year. Those roadblocks were broken when Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe joined the Democrats to help break Republican filibusters. But CQ today quotes Snowe as being concerned about the “open-endedness” of the benefits, suggesting she would be opposed to another long-term extension that is not “paid for” with cuts elsewhere in the budget.
Sen. Snowe, welcome to the club of those of us who are also concerned about the “open-endedness” of having to need these emergency benefits. But that is a concern best directed at your Republican colleagues who have steadfastly opposed government efforts to support job creation.
Speaking of those Republican colleagues, the second concern is the consequences of an extension that would only carry into February 2011, when the House will be under Republican control. In today’s vote, 143 Republicans voted against the benefit continuation, while 21 voted in favor. (Eleven Democrats also voted against the continuation.) Imagine what that vote might be in a House with at least 240 Republicans compared to as few as 190 Democrats.
Rather than kick this can into February 2011, a time when the unemployment situation—five times as many jobseekers as available jobs— is unlikely to be significantly different from what it is today, it is critical to extend unemployment benefits for a full year.
Today, President Obama affirmed his support for a one-year benefit extension. It makes sense. There are signs that the job market is recovering excruciatingly slowly. The unemployment rate by the end of 2011 is unlikely to be where it historically has been when Congress has ended emergency benefits, around 7 percent. But a one-year extension is the least that Congress should do.
“Several new federal studies are just the latest proof that Congress should enact a meaningful, year-long reauthorization of the federal unemployment insurance programs that expire November 30th, or else the economy – and millions of out-of-work Americans – will take a giant step back,” said Christine Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. “Short-term stop-gap measures, like the three-month continuation the House defeated today, are ill-advised and however well intentioned could ultimately do more harm than good.”
One of those studies, released earlier this week by the Labor Department, concluded that emergency unemployment benefits actually helped reduce unemployment by 1.2 percent during the recession. That’s due to the two-to-one multiplier effect of the benefit checks themselves, which are rapidly poured back by recipients into the economy.
On the other hand, if Republicans succeed in terminating the emergency program, a Goldman Sachs study says economic growth, and hence job creation, would actually be cut by a half-percentage point.
Earlier this week, Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein—who has sometimes been a sharp critic of progressives on the economy—headlined his column, “GOP to jobless: Drop dead.” He left the unemployment compensation votes out of his attack on the economic positions being taken by the right in Congress, but their position on jobless benefits would have fit neatly into his denunciation of “newly empowered and emboldened Republicans who have returned to Washington determined not just to reduce government’s role in the economy, but to thoroughly emasculate it. “