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The Unemployment Benefits Stalemate: Our Broken Politics on Full Display

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It's a terrible calamity that those in charge never should have allowed to happened, it's doing incalculable damage that will last for generations, and even as the destruction continues to spread, the government seems powerless to stop it.

No, I'm not talking about BP and the Gulf. I'm talking about President Obama, the millions of unemployed Americans, and the gulf between what needs to be done to deal with the jobs crisis and what is actually being done. It speaks volumes about our country and our deeply dysfunctional political system that not only have we been unable to bring the unemployment rate down, we can't even pass a bill extending unemployment benefits.

As the Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney points out, by the end of this week, Congress' failure to act will bring the total number of long-term unemployed prematurely cut off from aid to 2.5 million. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' June 2010 numbers, the unemployment rate is currently 9.5 percent. Almost half of those out of work have been looking for a job for over six months. What's more, the only reason the unemployment rate went down .2 percent in June is because over 650,000 people had become so discouraged they left the workforce altogether and are no longer being counted. Also not being counted are the underemployed -- those hoping for full-time work who've had to settle for part-time jobs. When you factor them in, you have nearly 26 million people who are unemployed or underemployed. And, over the next few months, upwards of 700,000 Census workers will be looking for a job, their services not required for another ten years.

And yet our system seems incapable of doing the obviously right thing. Yes, some of the hold-up in extending unemployment benefits has to do with the intricacies regarding the replacement of the late Senator Robert Byrd. But the fact that something so necessary to the well-being of the country has to come down to arcane Senate procedures is a gigantic warning sign of how seriously out of whack our nation's priorities have become.

The White House has the ultimate PR weapon -- the president's bully pulpit. But he seems unwilling to use it on this issue. Why isn't his administration doing everything possible to make it impossible for Congress not to pass the extension? If you'd told the members of Obama's team during their first week in office that, come the summer of 2010, unemployment benefits, which were routinely extended under President Bush, would be allowed to expire for over 40 days and counting, they -- to borrow a phrase from Richard Clarke -- would have been running around with their hair on fire. And rightly so. Yet does anybody see that kind of urgency coming out of the White House? Not just about extending unemployment benefits, but about creating jobs.

Instead, the administration keeps reminding us how much worse things were before it took office. "Understand," Robert Gibbs said Sunday on Meet the Press, "the last six months of 2008, we saw an economy that shed three million jobs. The first six months of 2010, the economy has created 600,000 private sector jobs...We think if you take a look backwards and look forwards, there's no doubt that we're on the right path." We may be on the right path, but we're traveling down it at a snail's pace when we should be putting the pedal to the metal.

Maybe one of the reasons the administration is so reluctant to take on the ludicrous Republican economic arguments currently holding the country hostage is that it has adopted so many of them itself. Which is why we get nonsense like this, from Tim Geithner last week: "This president understands deeply that governments don't create jobs, businesses create jobs."

Has the Treasury Secretary never heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority? If so, why is he cynically mouthing GOP claptrap?

The two main Republican arguments against extending benefits -- that they will add to the deficit, and that they make people less likely to look for work -- are easily shot down.

Dean Baker makes quick work of the deficit argument:

"The latest extension of unemployment benefits would have added $22 billion to the debt by the end of 2011. This means that the debt would be $9,807,000,000 instead of $9,785,000,000 at the end of fiscal 2011, an increase of the debt to GDP ratio from 65.3 percent to 65.4 percent."

As for the claim that unemployment insurance keeps people from seeking a job, a report by Congress' Joint Economic Committee found it to be less than credible:

"The best evidence suggests that during this current economic downturn both the unemployment rate and duration of unemployment were minimally impacted by unemployment insurance benefits and the extensions of benefits. To the extent that the unemployment rate even rises, UI may be providing an enormous social benefit by preventing people not from taking jobs, but from dropping out of the labor force altogether (and often permanently), relying instead on more costly programs like disability benefits."

The report also notes that the average weekly benefit comes in at 25 percent below the poverty level for a family of four. So are we to believe that millions of people are not looking for jobs so they can maintain the cushy lifestyles enjoyed by those living well below the poverty rate? Shouldn't the president and his team be banging home the ridiculousness of these claims -- and the hardheartedness of those who make them?

Since the jobs crisis is clearly the most pressing domestic problem facing the country right now, it's hard to figure out what's worse: the fact that our system seems unable to do anything about high unemployment, or the growing acceptance that this is just the way things are in America today.