06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Senate Lets Unemployment Benefits Expire

Today -- April 5 -- is not a good day for people who've been out of work more than six months. That is because the U.S. Senate failed to extend the federal program of Unemployment Insurance benefits before leaving for a two-week Congressional recess, even though the program was scheduled to expire on April 5 -- a week before they return.

So here it is, April 5. In the next week, more than 212,000 jobless people will lose unemployment benefits because the Senate failed to act, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project. The Senate leadership, which tried to take up the extension, has said they will make the benefits retroactive when the Senate finally acts. That is undeniably a good thing, but in the week or two people will be without their $300 - $400 weekly benefit checks, it's likely that some will run out of food. Some, once denied benefits, will not understand that they are only temporarily ineligible, and may not come back to seek assistance after Congress acts.

The latest unemployment figures are a painful reminder of why the federal benefits are so badly needed, and why letting the program expire is simply shameful. The federal program picks up where state benefits leave off, covering people who remain out of work after their state benefits run out (usually after 26 weeks). The number of long-term unemployed has been growing month after month, and grew by a stunning 414,000 in March. There are now 6.5 million people jobless for more than six months; their proportion of all the unemployed has now grown to 44.1 percent. The jobs picture showed some signs of improvement in March, but it will be years before we get back to where we were before the recession. If we abandon the jobless now, their loss of income will put the brakes on the economy just when we need to accelerate. And it is a pretty nasty thing to do, besides.

Providing unemployment benefits is not by a long shot all we should be doing. We need to do far more to help the long-term unemployed find work. Congress has been too slow and too timid to invest productively to create jobs and provide training. Now is the perfect time to give people the chance to get jobs repairing schools and roads, and to enter the fields of renewable energy and health care. Representative George Miller has recently introduced the Local Jobs for America Act (H.R. 4812) to put people to work rebuilding communities and to save existing local jobs. Such an approach would allow people to improve their skills and experience while meeting community needs. Their work will strengthen the economic recovery. The bill would do a lot - creating or saving one million jobs - and therefore it is not cheap ($100 billion over 2 years). It is just the kind of investment we need to jumpstart the economy. But it will be opposed by some in Congress because of the deficit - the same wrong-headed rationale that has temporarily stymied unemployment benefits.

There is little doubt that there is a majority in the Senate to continue unemployment benefits, and the House has already passed the extension. Why, then, did the program expire? Because one Senator - Tom Coburn of Oklahoma - blocked the Senate from bringing a thirty-day extension of the program up for a vote. When the Senate wants to take up legislation quickly, without prolonged debate, it often does so by "unanimous consent." The Senate did not have a lot of time in the week before the recess, because it had just finished up work on the historic health care legislation. So it needed unanimous consent to bring the unemployment bill to the floor. Senator Coburn denied consent. There was not enough time to move through the regular Senate procedures. That was it - as of April 5, no more federal unemployment aid.

Senator Coburn insisted that he did not oppose unemployment benefits, but believes they should be paid for, to avoid deepening the deficit. There are two things wrong with his position. One, he held unemployed people hostage, knowing there was no way to avoid letting the program expire if he continued to stand in the way. Two, economists believe that unemployment benefits provide a needed boost to the still fragile economy, and should not be paid for. The money paid out in benefits is one of the most effective forms of economic stimulus, because hard-up jobless people have no choice but to spend the money they receive, and their spending helps the bottom lines of supermarkets, phone companies, and other businesses. If government cuts other programs to pay for this infusion of cash, it reduces the economic benefit.

Senator Coburn has not been consistently concerned about the deficit. In 2008 he voted to reduce the estate tax, which, if the amendment had passed, would have cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade. He even voted against a similar amendment that would have paid for a proposed reduction in the estate tax. It was fortunate that both amendments failed, because reducing the estate tax helps only a handful of heirs to multi-million dollar estates, and the nation has better uses for that money. (Two years later, Congress has temporarily allowed the estate tax to be repealed altogether, but that's an outrage for another day.)

Now that federal unemployment benefits have expired, it is entirely appropriate to be dismayed by Senator Coburn's willingness to cut off lifeline assistance for unemployed people. We should be dismayed not only because of the injustice to hundreds of thousands of people, but because selective grandstanding about the deficit is getting in the way of the actions we need to take.

It is also worth noting that this is just one more failure of the Senate's usual approach, which has depended on a spirit of bipartisan cooperation. Because there is ample evidence the Senate can no longer count on unanimous consent to move even strongly supported legislation along, the Senate leadership should have prepared in advance by moving to limit debate with enough time before the recess to be able to get to the vote that would have prevented unemployment benefits from expiring. The vote to limit debate has at last been filed, and will take place when the Senate returns on the evening of April 12. Every Senator should be encouraged to vote to limit debate, and then as soon as possible to restore the federal unemployment insurance program through the end of this year.