POLITICS
05/21/2014 02:21 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

Why The Long-Term Jobless Probably Aren't Getting Their Benefits Back

Mark Wilson via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- The 2 million Americans who've missed out on long-term unemployment insurance since December probably won't be getting their benefits back.

Last month, the Senate passed legislation that would give lump-sum payments to people cut off since December by reauthorizing federal programs retroactively from December through May. But even if the House moved on the Senate bill this week and allowed people to collect back-payments, the long-term jobless would only receive support for one more week before the benefits expired again.

Now, the retrospective push is losing steam. Though they still say House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) should allow a vote on the Senate bill, the senators advocating for the legislation are wondering if it remains practical after all this time.

"Or have we reached a point because of the delay that the prospective option is the only one that's viable," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told HuffPost on Tuesday.

In other words, Reed and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), the two senators from the states with the highest rates of unemployment, might abandon back payments in favor of restoring the safety net for people who become unemployed for long periods of time in the future.

"We haven't come to any conclusions," Reed said.

Reed and Heller may try to attach the federal benefits to unrelated transportation or tax legislation, but those are long shots.

Since 2008, Democrats have successfully won reauthorizations of unemployment a dozen different times. Usually, the benefits have been combined with some other urgent, Republican-friendly piece of legislation -- a key ingredient that has been missing this time.

In 2010, lawmakers attached the unemployment benefits to a two-year reauthorization of the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, and they added a one-year payroll tax break for workers. The payroll tax cut's looming expiration helped lawmakers cut another deal the following year, but Republicans also insisted on a slew of reforms to the unemployment system, including a reduction in the number of weeks of assistance.

During recessions, Congress always gives extra weeks of benefits to people laid off through no fault of their own if they can't find work after using the standard 26 weeks of benefits offered by states. The deal cut early in 2012 pared the combination of state and federal benefits back from a maximum of 99 weeks to 73 weeks, and it set in motion more reductions that would happen automatically when state unemployment rates declined. At the end of 2012, the benefits once again hitched a ride with the Bush tax cuts in the "fiscal cliff" drama.

Then, following a government shutdown last fall, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) got to work on a bipartisan budget agreement. Democrats did not insist on attaching the unemployment benefits to the budget deal, hoping they could be handled separately before the end of the year. The budget deal might have been their best chance to save the benefits from expiring at the end of December.

"If they really wanted to get this done, they would've taken that week in December when the House was gone and the Senate was in and jammed us" by attaching the benefits and sending the bill back to the House, a House GOP leadership aide said, speaking anonymously in order to discuss the matter candidly. "We were certainly expecting them to do it, and that was their best chance."

Instead, the Senate passed the budget deal clean, later addressing the benefits as standalone legislation. Democrats have been beating up Boehner for refusing to allow a vote on the Senate bill, hoping the pressure would change his mind.

"The House could pass the legislation very quickly," Reed said Tuesday. "It is a bipartisan, fully paid-for Senate bill. It's more than ironic they were able to pass a multibillion-dollar tax bill unpaid for, but they can't deal with unemployment insurance for over 2 million Americans."

The strategy hasn't worked. One reason for Boehner's impassiveness is that the national unemployment rate keeps going down. When the Labor Department announced the rate had sunk to 7 percent in November, Boehner seized on the news.

“Today’s report includes positive signs that should discourage calls for more emergency government 'stimulus,'" Boehner said. Since then, the rate has declined to 6.3 percent.

Yet the rate of long-term unemployment remains historically high. In April, 35.3 percent of the unemployed had been out of work six months or longer -- down from a peak of 45.3 percent in April of 2010, but still way higher than in any previous recession since World War II. The current percentage is also higher than at any other time that Congress has allowed long-term benefits to expire.

After so many battles over reauthorizing unemployment benefits, it's possible some lawmakers are just getting tired of it.

"Though there are many members on both sides of the aisle who would vote yes on an unemployment insurance bill that made it to the floor, the reality is that there is tremendous fatigue on this issue, especially on the right," Judy Conti, a lobbyist for the National Employment Law Project who routinely deals with lawmakers, said in an email.

"Between the initial authorization of [long-term benefits] and all the expansions and reauthorizations, this is the 13th time Congress has been called on to deal with the benefits, including five different reauthorizations in 2010 alone," Conti said. "In fact, it's probably the case that members of Congress have dealt with unemployment insurance more than almost any other issue since even before the recession began."

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