GOP's deep moral failing: Why it won't extend unemployment insurance

They continue to believe in the 47% myth, and that the only thing worse than sequestration is subsidizing "losers"

Published December 10, 2013 5:13PM (EST)

John Boehner, Paul Ryan                              (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet,
John Boehner, Paul Ryan (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Jeff Malet,

In my piece this morning, I wrote about the legislative politics surrounding late-stage budget negotiations between Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and the reasons Democrats aren't pushing harder to include an extension of expiring unemployment benefits in any deal.

To advance my own interests, I encourage you to read the whole thing. But the nickel version goes something like this.

Congressional Democrats are strategically divided over whether to Hail Mary for extending emergency unemployment benefits. On one side of the divide you have emboldened Democrats who believe that Republicans will either fold and agree to extend emergency UI, or go it alone just to find they can't pass anything on their own. After another embarrassing debacle, and perhaps another shutdown, they'll come crawling back and give Democrats the whole store.

On the other side of that divide are risk-averse Democrats who believe Republicans have learned their lesson in October. Conservative hard-liners aren't taking any hostages this time around. The restive faction in the party now comprises appropriators and defense hawks who want to cut a deal with Democrats to ease sequestration. But these aren't a rebellious lot, and if Democrats make too many demands they'll be good soldiers and support extending funds to the government without sequestration relief and without an emergency unemployment extension. Don't free the bird in the hand, these Democrats caution, because the two in the bush are unattainable.

Both sides are making sound logical arguments, but only one side is operating from a correct premise. Their differences boil down to contradictory assessments of whether these fidgety GOP appropriators and hawks are so eager for a deal that they'd abandon Republican leaders if the Ryan-Murray talks collapse.

My strong suspicion is they wouldn't -- that the risk-averse Democrats are correct. And in this piece I want to explain my reasoning, and the moral implications of that conclusion.

For the past two years, but more acutely for the past nine months, the GOP's rhetorical approach to sequestration has been muddled, but its strategic decisions have revealed a straightforward value system. Sequestration is inefficient, and a risk to national security, but it's better than taxing rich people to subsidize "losers."

If one thing unifies the party now it's that the distributive consideration overrides all others.

That's why Ryan and Murray have left the tax code completely outside the scope of their negotiations. Folding an unemployment extension into their negotiations wouldn't implicate the tax code, per se, but it would establish a precedent of sorts that sequestration relief must come with a side of subsidizing "losers," even if the extension were offset by non-tax payfors.

A lot of Republicans don't like subsidizing "losers," so including a UI extension would erode Republican support for a deal. It's 47 percenterism applied to historically bipartisan emergency unemployment benefits.

This wouldn't matter if the appropriators and defense hawks were really ready to forge an alliance with Democrats. But there's almost no reason to think that's true. The Democrats involved in the negotiations certainly don't think it's true. If they're right, then the hawk position amounts to the idea that nothing's worse than sequestering the defense budget … except splitting the Republican Party and preserving unemployment benefits for millions of Americans who've been out of work for months on end.

As tempting as it is to dismiss the above assessment, remember that for all their bellyaching, these same Republicans went along with the October shutdown, stuck with the House leadership at every procedural juncture, and didn't budge until Mitch McConnell cut a deal with Harry Reid to reopen the government and increase the debt limit.

This time around, though, Democrats would lack the normative high ground they enjoyed in October. Republicans wouldn't be taking any hostages. And though shutting down the government to leverage an extension of unemployment benefits is a more strategically and morally sound move than shutting down the government to defund Obamacare, it's still probably a loser. Not a risk worth taking, at any rate, when unemployment can still potentially be dealt with as a sidecar issue. At the very least, a separate vote on it would help clarify who's cutting off the jobless and undermining growth in this economy, during the holidays no less.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

MORE FROM Brian Beutler

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Defense Gop Patty Murray Paul Ryan Sequestration Taxes The Right Unemployment Unemployment Insurance