GOP's ulterior motive on unemployment: Economic sabotage?

There's more to Republican opposition to extending unemployment benefits than conservative principles

Published January 6, 2014 12:45PM (EST)

John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell                                                                                                                                      (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell (Reuters/Larry Downing/Adrees Latif/AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Congress returns from the holidays in earnest today, more than a week after allowing emergency unemployment compensation to lapse for millions of jobless Americans, which raises the critical question of what lies behind the GOP's reluctance to do the obviously correct thing.

Senate Democrats hope just a handful of Republicans will break away from the opposition later today, to pass legislation that would renew the lapsed benefits, and pressure John Boehner to follow suit, but they're having a hard time finding the votes.

What gives?

It's tempting to attribute the GOP's skittishness to the right's broader aversion to subsidizing poor people, but I don't think that's what's going on here. At least not entirely.

Congress has never cut off these benefits when unemployment has been as high as it is right now, and the long-term unemployed and the chronically poor aren't equivalent populations. So there's got to be more going on than just conservative indifference.

Some Republicans would claim the deficit is too high to renew benefits, but we know that's not true because the deficit is shrinking fast, and there are myriad, painless ways to defray the cost (which, for a year-long extension, runs north of $20 billion) over a decade. The Senate bill, authored by Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., would last for only three months.

Other Republicans argue incorrectly that the benefits create a significant work disincentive, and claim to believe that allowing them to lapse will stimulate the labor market -- even though the problem isn't complacency but rather that there are three unemployed workers for every job opening in the country right now.

Finally, Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Rob Woodall, R-Ga., explained that a major reason his colleagues will likely decline to renew the benefits is that they've arbitrarily decided enough's enough.

“What we did was never intended to be permanent. It was intended to be a very temporary solution to a very temporary crisis," Woodall said.

Jonathan Chait has explained why this position is so strange and inappropriate. "They just want to get back to normal, and since normality has not arrived, they’d just as soon pretend it has."

But I question the extent to which the hollowness on display here is born of genuine unconcern. It might be easy for some Republicans to blind themselves to the employment crisis, but plenty of others are confronted with it constantly. One of them is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

He's more aware than anyone of what he describes as a depression, not a recession, in Appalachian Kentucky -- a crisis he attributes to federal regulators in this administration.

Republicans might want to get back to normal. But you know what the opposite of normal is? A depression. It's hard to square the view that it's time to return to pre-crisis policy with the recognition that in some parts of the country there hasn't been a recovery at all.

Let's assume for argument's sake that McConnell's diagnosis is correct -- that there are thousands of Kentuckians out of work, not through any fault of their own but because the hand of big government has crushed their jobs and left them without any options. Maybe if Obama hadn't been reelected, McConnell could argue that Republicans intend to replace unemployment benefits with regulatory relaxations that would put these residents back to work. But Obama won, which means regulatory relief is at least three years away. If they're not habitual moochers, and their problem isn't a work disincentive but rather a severe, depression-level absence of jobs, and the spending can be offset, what's the rationale for taking away their unemployment compensation now?

By process of elimination, we're left with politics. Unemployment benefits make people's lives better and buoy a fragile, but possibly accelerating recovery. Some Republicans are apparently reluctant to give the economy, and by extension the Democrats, a shot in the arm right now.

This has been the motif of the past five years. But it hasn't always defined every Republican. It's possible that the Reed/Heller bill will clear the Senate. If it fails, though, or passes today then stalls in the House, I'd question the sincerity of Republicans who claim any kind of principle was at stake.

By Brian Beutler

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

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