Unemployment benefits will run out for many today

Although the March jobs report was encouraging, the unemployment rate and the number of long-term unemployed are still at historically high levels. Unfortunately, unemployment benefits for about 200,000 Americans will run out soon because Congress adjourned for its Easter recess before resolving an dispute over extending those and other benefits. The Hill reports:

The interruption in benefits will last two weeks at a minimum, according to Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project (NELP), since lawmakers return from spring break on April 12.

As the two-week recess began, Congress was at an impasse over how to extend the emergency unemployment insurance program and other expiring provisions, including increased COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, the Medicare doctor payment rate and federal flood insurance.

Senate Republicans said the $9.3 billion, 30-day extension preferred by Democrats should be paid for, while Democrats said the bill’s cost didn’t need to be offset because the program was “emergency spending.”

Under the jobless benefits program that ends Monday, Americans out of work are eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The program, aimed at helping jobless Americans stay afloat when new jobs aren’t readily available, gives an unemployed worker more than the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance normally available. But with the program ending, those out of work for as few as six months will see an interruption in their benefit checks.

I love how Republicans who approved every blank check for war in Iraq and every tax cut for the top 1 percent now demand that unemployment benefits be “paid for.” I don’t expect them to hold up action on unemployment benefits forever, but even if Democrats are able to apply extensions retroactively later this month, a lot of families will experience real hardship in the meantime. Democrats should not have adjourned for Easter before dealing with this issue. I hope they pass a bill to extend the benefits until the end of the year, so these battles won’t recur every month.

In an April 2 statement regarding the latest jobs report, Senator Tom Harkin outlined additional steps needed to help people looking for work:

“First, Congress must overcome the obstructionism that is holding up an extension of unemployment insurance.  This critical safety net expires Monday and will leave nearly 38,000 Americans and 1,200 Iowans without benefits they need while they look for work.  In addition, we must take immediate action to prevent job losses among our nation’s teachers – to protect the quality of education – and we need to pass job creating legislation.  When Congress returns, I intend to move immediately on those efforts.”

UPDATE: Mike Lillis has more on benefits expiring and next steps in the Senate.

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Iowans split on party lines as House passes scaled-back jobs bill

The House of Representatives approved a jobs bill today containing about $15 billion in tax incentives and a $20 billion allocation from the Highway Trust Fund to support infrastructure projects. (The Senate had approved the legislation on February 24.) Iowa Democrats Bruce Braley (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02) and Leonard Boswell (IA-03) voted for the bill, while Iowa Republicans Tom Latham (IA-04) and Steve King (IA-05) voted against it (roll call here). Six Republicans joined 211 Democrats in supporting the bill, while 35 Democrats opposed it along with most of the GOP caucus. The Democratic opponents were mostly members of either the Progressive Caucus or the Congressional Black Caucus:

Congressman [Raul] Grijalva, one of the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, had dismissed the tax-credit focused bill as not “dealing with job creation.” […] The CBC’s position during the month long debate on the $15 billion jobs tax credit package was fairly straightforward – CBC members don’t want to back a bill that was composed of tax breaks for business which they don’t believe will necessarily create jobs when other job-creating programs the CBC supports, such a summer youth jobs program, face an uncertain future in the Senate.

Braley had introduced a separate bill last month containing language similar to part of the jobs bill approved today:

Braley’s language in the HIRE Act provides small business owners with greater incentives to hire workers for long-term positions, providing $1,000 in additional tax incentives for businesses that retain employees for 52 consecutive weeks. The payroll tax cut provides greater incentive for employers to move quickly to hire new workers because the credit expires at the end of the year.  The sooner employees are hired, the more time small business owners have to benefit from the credit.

The [Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment] Act also includes the following provisions:

o       Tax cuts to spur new investment by small businesses to help them expand and hire more workers

o       Extension of the Highway Trust Fund allowing for tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment

o       Provisions — modeled after the Build America Bonds program – to make it easier for states to borrow for infrastructure projects, such as school construction and energy projects

Earlier this week, Republican Senator Jim Bunning ended his filibuster of a bill including a temporary extension of unemployment benefits and other measures. The Senate then approved the bill by a 78 to 19 vote. Both Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley voted for the bill. However, Grassley defended Bunning’s efforts to demand that the bill be paid for, while Harkin said Bunning had abused Senate procedures in blocking the bill for several days. I do agree with one point Grassley raised: the unemployment benefits should have been included in the jobs bill the Senate approved on February 24.

Obama signed the bill right away on March 3. Not only did that extend unemployment and COBRA benefits, it also allowed furloughed Department of Transportation workers to come back to work and prevented a big cut in Medicare payments to physicians from going into effect.

Speaking of jobs-related legislation, Roxanne Conlin’s campaign blasted Grassley this week for announcing that some Dubuque workers are eligible for a retraining program that he voted against. After the jump you can read the press release, which includes background information on the program and Grassley’s voting record.  

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Long-term unemployed pay the price for Senate dysfunction

As long-term unemployment continues to rise, unemployment benefits for many Americans will run out tonight because the U.S. Senate failed to pass a bill extending the benefits late last week. An estimated 1.2 million Americans, including about 75,000 Iowans, stand to lose unemployment benefits during the month of March if Congress does not act. For reasons I don’t understand, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid left the benefits extension out of the jobs bill approved by the Senate on February 24.

The following day, the House of Representatives approved a separate bill containing a one-month extension of unemployment benefits, federal subsidies for people on COBRA health insurance plans, current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, and a few other programs. Democrats tried to bring this bill up for a Senate vote right away, but retiring Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky repeatedly objected to motions for unanimous consent. Democrats promised to keep filing motions until Bunning broke down, but instead they adjourned near midnight on Thursday night.

Democrats have been slamming Bunning in public statements and e-mail blasts. Here’s an example from Senator Tom Harkin’s office on Friday:

“We need to act quickly to extend the safety net and make sure laid-off workers have access to unemployment benefits through the end of the year, at least,” said Harkin.  “It is heartbreaking to see political games being played with the lives of hardworking people who are struggling to find a job, particularly when there has been strong bipartisan support in the past to extend unemployment benefits and other vital safety net programs.  

“Unfortunately this is emblematic of the larger issue plaguing the Senate today: abuse of Senate procedure.  We saw it in November as well.  While Senate Republicans play games, families are sitting around their kitchen tables wondering how they will make ends meet.  

“I intend to do everything in my power to fight this and hope other Senators will join me in this effort.”

[…] In November, Senate Republicans used a similar delay tactic to filibuster a motion to proceed to a bill to extend unemployment compensation.  After delaying and grinding Senate business to a halt for nearly a month, the bill passed 97-1.

Bunning’s behavior is inexcusable, and he even had the gall to complain about missing a college basketball game while staying on the Senate floor to block this bill.

At the same time, it is pathetic that Democrats adjourned instead of standing and fighting Senate Republicans all weekend long. Apparently one or two other Republicans showed up Thursday night to back up Bunning, but so what? Democrats should have refused to leave until the unemployment benefits bill passed. At the Congress Matters blog, David Waldman explained other ways Democrats could have handled Bunning’s procedural roadblock. Chris Bowers looked at the big picture here:

Democrats are in charge, and they are going to get blamed for this.  Democratic attempts to blame this on Senate procedure will ring utterly hollow.  Not only do people not understand, or care about, those rules, but it simply sounds wimpy and pathetic for the people running the United States Government to throw their hands up in the air and say “our procedural rules prevented us from doing anything to solve this huge problem. Sorry.”

Democrats did not have to adjourn.  They could have kept fighting Bunning.  Further, they all agreed to the rules under which the Senate operates, and most of them are still defending those rules.  Blaming Senate procedure is not going to extend anyone’s unemployment or COBRA benefits, and its not going to win many hearts around the country.

Sure, Jim Bunning is currently the biggest asshole in the country right now.  However, if you think that procedure is a problem, then start working to change the procedure.  If you think that unemployment benefits need to be extended, then don’t adjourn for the weekend when those benefits are slated to run out.  

Sometime this week, or perhaps later in March, Senate Democrats will break the Republican obstruction. But when that happens, “state governments will still have to deal with the extra administrative costs of shutting down and restarting the extended benefits programs.”

Some Republicans, like Representative Steve King, are philosophically opposed to extending unemployment benefits, but they fail to acknowledge that extending unemployment benefits has tremendous “bang for the buck.” The Iowa Fiscal Partnership recently calculated that that the unemployment benefits extension contained in last year’s federal stimulus bill “produced $501.7 million increased economic activity and $112.1 million in income in 2009, while creating or saving 3,727 jobs” in Iowa alone.

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Iowans split as U.S. House votes to extend unemployment benefits

On Tuesday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2009, which “would extend unemployment insurance benefits by 13 weeks in states that have jobless rates above 8.5 percent.” 27 states and the District of Columbia have unemployment rates exceeding that level.

The bill easily passed by a vote of 331 to 83, but as you can see from the roll call, Iowa’s House delegation was divided in an unusual way. Representatives Bruce Braley (IA-01) and Leonard Boswell (IA-03) were among the 17 Democrats who voted against the bill. They opposed it because unemployed Iowans would be ineligible for the extended benefits. Although our state has the eighth-lowest unemployment rate in the country, we also have pockets of higher unemployment, especially in rural areas.

After the jump I’ve posted statements released by Braley and Boswell on this bill. Boswell noted that four counties in the third Congressional districts have unemployment rates above 9 percent. Braley noted, “When you’re unemployed, it doesn’t matter to you what your state’s unemployment rate is.  What matters is that you need to support your family.”

Representative Dave Loebsack (IA-02) did not vote yesterday, because he was meeting with Fema Administrator Craig Fugate and various state and local officials in Cedar Rapids to discuss flood recovery efforts. I contacted his office for comment on the unemployment bill. His spokesperson Sabrina Siddiqui told me that Loebsack had serious concerns about the way Iowans were excluded from the extended unemployment benefits, adding that Loebsack is working with House leaders to address the needs of unemployed Iowans in future legislation.

Extending unemployment benefits during a severe recession is good policy, not only to help struggling families, but because spending on unemployment benefits has a very high economic stimulus “bang for the buck.” That said, it’s unfair to penalize unemployed Iowans for the fact that our state is faring better than many others on the jobs front.

Iowa’s Republicans in the U.S. House were also divided on this bill, with Tom Latham (IA-04) voting yes and Steve King (IA-05) voting no.

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