GOP's little-noticed unemployment sham: The quiet death of extended benefits

GOP obstructionism killed a bipartisan benefits extension, and now the long-term jobless are worst off than ever

Published June 5, 2014 2:40PM (EDT)

John Boehner                                    (Reuters/Larry Downing)
John Boehner (Reuters/Larry Downing)

If you’ve been paying any attention to the labor market over the last five or six months, then perhaps you've noticed something like this:

Starting somewhere around December or January, the long-term unemployed snapped out of their welfare-induced apathy. Seeing with open eyes for the first time in a long while, they discovered that not only were they wearing boots, but that said boots had some easily grippable straps.

Seizing those straps, they marched confidently toward their local job repositories and bellowed, “Look well, you creators of jobs. I have seized my own bootstraps, and am thus no longer content to be a mooch upon the society that you and the rest of your beneficent quintile have financed through confiscatory taxes on your non-offshore unearned income. Have you a job for me?” And of course they did, for the jobs were just waiting there the whole time.

(This was all culled from data in the last jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, though I can’t seem to find a link for it at the moment.)

That, of course, is nonsense. But it is only a slightly less stylized version of the rationale offered by Republicans when they moved to block the extension of unemployment benefits. Those benefits, they argued, were a disincentive for the long-term unemployed to go out and find jobs. Cut off the benefits, and the impetus to find work would surely kick in.

That hasn’t happened. But the Republicans are no less ardent in their desire to deny benefits to the long-term unemployed. The House of Representatives just recently killed the Senate’s compromise bill to extend benefits retroactively to the people who lost them in December. And they did it so quietly that barely anybody noticed.

Danny Vinik at the New Republic has the blow-by-blow of what happened. Basically, Speaker John Boehner would demand that a certain condition be met, the bill’s backers would accede, and then Boehner would come back with more conditions. He used the tactic to run out the clock on the legislation, which expired on May 31, sending the Senate back to the drawing board.

And not only has the whole process been reset, but the outlook for the would-be recipients of the benefits is now even worse. “Because the benefits disappeared more than five months ago and they'll have to find some way to pay for every penny of the new bill,” the National Journal reported, “[Senate negotiators] warn that granting retroactive benefits to millions may not be possible this time around.”

The fate of unemployment benefits is thus similar to that of comprehensive immigration reform: The Senate took bipartisan action to pass legislation, but the House GOP refused to act on it for no coherent or credible reason. The big difference between the two is that House Republicans don’t make a show of wanting to help the long-term unemployed.

And the long-term unemployed do need help. The fanciful tale of rampant bootstrap-ism described above has not come to pass. The long-term jobless are still looking for work. In the months following the cessation of benefits, there was no discernible increase in the rate at which the long-term unemployed were finding jobs. Ever since the recovery kicked into gear, the number of long-term unemployed people has been slowly declining, but that rate remained steady in the first quarter of this year.

In fact, there is reason to believe that the expiration of benefits has fueled a decline in the labor force participation rate. To be eligible for benefits you have to be looking for work, and ending those benefits may have discouraged the jobless, leading them to stop looking altogether. Throw in the demonstrated stimulative effect of unemployment benefits (they tend to be spent immediately) and you have a fairly strong case that the Republicans are doing real, tangible harm to the economy and to unemployed workers for no actual reason.

And they’re likely not going to pay a price for it. The promise of continued obstruction by the House GOP has dulled whatever initiative might have remained in the Senate to dive back into the unemployment fight. “It's not looking good right now—I guess that's the best way to sum it up,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the Republicans who backed the previous bill. Absent a coherent push by the Senate to force the issue, Boehner and his cohorts won’t take any heat from the press.

Depending on how tomorrow’s jobs report shakes out, the issue of reinstating benefits for the long-term unemployed might take on new life, but right now there’s no reason to think it would result in meaningful action. Meanwhile, the jobless find themselves in an increasingly dire situation, with no bootstraps to pull themselves up, and no net to stop their fall.

By Simon Maloy

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