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Deborah Weinstein

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House Republicans: Gambling With Millions of Lives

Posted: 12/21/11 03:21 PM ET

When the House Republicans blew up a bipartisan Senate plan to continue unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut for two months, they made it clear that they were willing to use the 99 percent as bargaining chips in their fight to protect the top 1 percent.

I say "bargaining chips" advisedly. Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-FL) said of the stand-off, "It's high stakes poker," as quoted in the Washington Post. They are gambling with millions of lives.

Most of the press coverage has been about the 160 million people who will start paying higher payroll taxes in January if the House intransigence is unyielding. A lot less attention has been focused on the long-term unemployed. After they exhaust 26 weeks of state unemployment insurance, people still out of work depend on additional weeks of help from the federal unemployment insurance program. More than 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than 6 months, so the federal program is desperately needed. But it will expire in January because of the House's gamble. According to the National Employment Law Project, nearly 1.8 million people will have to go without unemployment benefits in January alone, with millions more denied help in succeeding months.

Economists have consistently ranked unemployment insurance expenditures as among the most successful means of boosting the economy. Of course, the $300 a week in an average unemployment check goes straight back out into the community, spent on food, rent, clothes for their children, and other basic needs. That's not much money, but it can mean the difference between paying the rent and being evicted. The consequences for families will be stark. After all, these lifeline benefits kept 3.2 million people out of poverty in 2010, 1 million of whom were children. Most of the families who lose their unemployment checks will not find jobs; there are still four job-seekers for every available job. They will fall into poverty if they aren't already poor.

It is stunning that the House Republicans don't care enough about the jobless to protect them while negotiations go on for a year-long solution. But that's the point: They are doing this because they don't want to protect them. The House-passed bill that provided a year's extension of the payroll tax cut plus another year of federal unemployment compensation placed many restrictions on unemployment insurance. The bill slashed the maximum number of weeks available by 50 (and states with the highest unemployment rates were hit the hardest). It also threw up mean-spirited barriers meant to slam the door on unemployment insurance applicants. That would be costly and unnecessary: States already restrict eligibility for workers who lose their jobs because of drug use.

In another cynical barrier, under the House bill unemployment insurance recipients would either have to have finished high school or be enrolled in a high school equivalency program. There is a waiting list of 160,000 people nationwide to get into such programs, and House Republicans have not been noted for expanding such educational opportunities.

The Senate vigorously rejected these punishments for being out of work, passing a two-month extension with no policy changes with overwhelming support from both parties. House leaders were not confident that they could prevail in slashing unemployment insurance in a calm negotiation with the Senate. But the House leaders know that in a crisis environment, with the clock ticking on every long-term unemployed person's weekly check, they might wrest more concessions from the Senate.

That's not all the House wants. Their bill paid for the payroll tax cut, federal unemployment benefits, and other extensions by cutting spending needed for the new health reform law, multi-year freezes on federal worker pay, and taking the Child Tax Credit away from poor children in immigrant families, even though the vast majority of those children are U.S. citizens. Above all, the House Republicans are intent on paying for the payroll tax cut and other provisions with spending or benefit cuts -- certainly not by raising taxes on the top 1 percent.

It is a revealing moment for them. All the talk about never wanting to raise taxes and never needing to pay for tax cuts? That was vigorously asserted when it came to upper-income tax cuts. Speaker Boehner dismissed the attempt a year ago to end the tax cuts for the highest-earning Americans as "chicken crap."

The Speaker and his caucus placed the country on the brink of default in order to preserve the high-income tax cuts. But there is no similar defense of the decidedly middle class payroll tax cut. It's a poker chip now.

Both the Senate two-month bill and the House's year-long legislation extended a number of other low-income programs that are due to expire in December. These include income and child care assistance for the poorest families, Transitional Medicaid for families moving from welfare to work, and subsidies to help low-income seniors afford health insurance. It is shameful to leave these programs in limbo too, all in a reckless attempt to ratchet up the pressure to shrink federal programs.