By Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger
Through inaction and timid legislative negotiations, Congress just keeps letting the U.S. sink deeper and deeper into the economic abyss. Last week, Congress denied relief to the jobless and is currently poised to undercut a proposal that would rein in predatory lending. With unemployment out of control and banks pillaging citizens' pocketbooks at every turn, the economy is in dire need of serious financial reform and a major jobs package.
More than one million have lost unemployment benefits
As James Ridgeway emphasizes for Mother Jones, over a million people receiving unemployment benefits ran out of financial rope on March 1 thanks to Sen. Jim Bunning's (R-KY) self-righteousness. As a result of bizarre Senate procedural rules, Bunning's sole "no" vote was enough to stop a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for those who are out of work. Of course, Bunning had plenty of moral support from his fellow Republicans. Ridgeway highlights a Think Progress post on Rep. Dean Heller's (R-NV) preposterous argument that it is time for the government to cut off unemployment benefits, since there are so many bums.
"What makes Heller's statement really stupid, of course, is that people could become hobos if Congress doesn't extend unemployment benefits, rather than if they do," Ridgeway writes. "Modest as they are, these weekly benefits are what's keeping thousands--and perhaps millions--of families out of poverty."
As Brian Beutler notes for Talking Points Memo, Bunning's economic insanity also triggered a 21% cut in the fees doctors receive for treating Medicare patients. That's a big "Screw you!" to seniors.
What happens when unemployment benefits dry up?
The degree of personal crisis attached to unemployment is also important. We're talking about access to basic necessities. As Roger Bybee notes for Working In These Times, when a family runs out of unemployment benefits, the result is an absolute personal catastrophe in which there is simply no money left to buy food, pay rent, or meet electricity bills.
Yet when a major financial institution finds itself on the verge of collapse, the government is quick to come to the rescue. In addition to the one million people ran out of benefits on March 1, four million more are slated to run out by June--that's roughly the combined populations of Los Angeles and Dallas. This is a tremendous national crisis. Here's Bybee:
"There is plenty of bipartisan compassion in Congress when it comes to bailing out the wealthy and their banks. But when it comes to spending federal money to bail out folks ... with unemployment compensation and a major jobs program, a bi-partisan consensus forms among conservatives in both parties eager to show 'fiscal discipline.'"
As Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz emphasizes in an interview at AlterNet, the jobs crisis is so severe that the government needs to go much further than simply extending existing unemployment benefits. At minimum, it also needs to send a major package of fiscal aid to states on the order of $200 billion to allow states to hire teachers and cops, as well as prevent further layoffs.
Making the jobs bill accessible to all
While a new jobs bill is critical, it's important to make sure everyone has access to its efforts, as Aaron Glantz explains for The Progressive. The economic stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed into law last year has helped keep the economy from falling off a cliff, but it's overwhelmingly neglected communities of color. The unemployment rate for blacks is 16.5%, nearly the double the 8.7% rate for whites, while Latinos face an unemployment rate 50% higher than whites. Not all of that disparity can be blamed on the stimulus, but the federal contracts awarded for new jobs projects overwhelmingly went to white-owned firms. We have to make sure that the funds Congress dedicates to unemployment relief are distributed fairly.
Save the Consumer Financial Protection Agency
After watching the government hurl trillions of dollars at faltering banks, it's obvious that major financial reform is urgently needed. And one of the most important aspects of that reform is a new regulatory agency that defends consumers, not just bank balance sheets. As Tim Fernholz argues for The American Prospect:
"Shoring up our financial system to avoid new disasters remains popular with the public but only if it represents real reform. ...That means closing loopholes and making clear that this bill has what it takes to protect average citizens as well as restricting banks' bad behavior."
And yet astoundingly, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), the current Democratic leader of financial reform negotiations in the Senate, appears ready to drop Obama's proposal to create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA).
Instead, Dodd would house the regulator under the Treasury Department, and give the existing, failed bank regulators effective veto power over the CFPA's moves. It's a head-fake: We create a new regulator, but are instead giving that power to the same failed agencies who allowed the banks to pillage our pocketbooks, our retirement savings and our home values.
Failed negotiations with the GOP
This is supposedly all part of a set of negotiations with Republicans, but they aren't really negotiating in any clear sense. Negotiating means going through some process of give-and-take. Right now, Republicans are just seeing how far Democrats will bend, and so far, there has been no limit. Ferhnolz is right. Voting for the banks and against taxpayers and consumers will be a very bitter pill for Republicans to swallow. Dodd and the Democrats need to make them do it instead of caving to pressure and allowing Republicans to vote for a weak bill that doesn't protect the public from banker excess. Make the Republicans vote for real reform, or face the consequences at the polls for voting against it.
The public shame that is currently being heaped upon Bunning should prove that point. The American public wants jobs and financial reform. They want to go back to work and make sure that the bankers who tanked the economy can't keep getting rich by hijacking their savings. Woe unto the politician who opposes that.
This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.
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