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Rep. Jim McDermott Headshot

Will a Republican Tsunami Drown the Unemployed?

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While the pundits and politicians continue pontificating on the meaning of the Nov. 2 election, one message is already clear: Americans are extremely worried about jobs and unemployment. According to CNN polling, voters said that unemployment is roughly twice as important as all other top issues combined. And the Wall Street Journal noted that about one-third of voters said that they or someone they knew have suffered from unemployment in the past two years. So now that Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives and gained several seats in the Senate, what will this mean for the millions of Americans affected by unemployment?

Despite the fact that unemployment remains above nine percent, the incoming House majority has made it clear that jobs and unemployment are not at the top of their to-do list. Prominent Republicans have spent the last week trumpeting the need to extend huge tax breaks to the wealthy and to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Both actions would significantly increase our nation's debt and lead us down the road to bankruptcy, another major concern for voters. And, sadly, if Republican control of Congress means more going to the most fortunate, it almost assuredly will mean less help for struggling Americans.

While the rich may be celebrating in anticipation of additional tax breaks, the unemployed will be one of the first groups of Americans to take it on the chin under the Republican agenda. On Nov. 27, federal funding for extended unemployment benefits will start winding down. This means two million dislocated workers will lose their unemployment benefits between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day unless Congress acts to continue funding for these emergency benefits. Instead of joy, this holiday season likely will bring more poverty, more foreclosures, and more heartache to America's unemployed.

At a time when there are five unemployed workers for every available job, it seems inconceivable that these unemployment benefits would be allowed to expire. Never in our nation's great history have we allowed emergency unemployment programs to terminate when the unemployment rate is anywhere close to as high as it is today. We have long understood that cutting off the unemployed's last lifeline is not only ruinous for American families, it is also very destructive for the economy because it further diminishes consumer demand and confidence.

Many Americans may not believe that Republicans will abandon jobless workers. I wished I shared their confidence, but the evidence from this election campaign is disturbing. Various Republicans running for Congress this year suggested that federal assistance to the unemployed is "not constitutionally authorized," that it "spoils" jobless workers, or that, at best, it is a "necessary evil." Many Republicans regard unemployment benefits as a handout to the lazy, rather than as the last safety net available to hardworking Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

Interestingly, some of the fiercest opponents of unemployment benefits appear to have lost their election contests, but I am not sure the Republican establishment noticed. Republicans seem less focused on their constituents who are suffering during this Great Recession, and more focused on appeasing the party's increasingly right-wing puppeteers who threaten a challenge in the next Republican primary to any incumbent who refuses to toe the line.

The only force strong enough to resist this wave of bad news for the unemployed is the American people. In a recent Rutgers poll, 86 percent of Americans said that most of those who are unemployed really want to work. They see through the propaganda that suggests people are content living on inadequate unemployment benefits -- benefits that average less than 75 percent of the poverty level for a family of four.

But the question remains whether the public will speak loudly enough for the Republicans to hear. Will the American people stand up before one of the last economic lifelines ceases to exist? I fervently hope so. Many in the media have dubbed the recent election a Republican "tsunami." I agree that a disaster is looming; I just hope that the hardest-hit victims of the Great Recession can withstand the wave.