WASHINGTON -- With the House of Representatives set to vote on a Republican jobs bill Tuesday, a freshman Republican congresswoman, riffing on Occupy Wall Street's "We are the 99 percent" slogan, said the measure would be a step toward reducing income inequality. A small step.
"Let's stop talking about 1 percent versus 99 percent," Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.) said during a press conference. "Let's increase it to 2 percent versus 98. And let's keep going from there."
Among its many provisions, the Republican bill would preserve an expiring payroll tax cut that put $1,000, on average, in the pockets of 120 million working families this year. But House Republicans attached a measure calling on the president to speed construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, saying the project would create jobs. The White House has threatened to veto the entire bill.
Ellmers highlighted the legislation's unemployment insurance reforms, saying they would be a step in the right direction. The measure would reauthorize federal unemployment insurance while cutting the maximum duration of federal benefits by 40 weeks, bringing it from 73 to 33 weeks. During recessions, federal unemployment kicks in for workers who use up their state benefits, which in most cases last for 26 weeks.
Ellmers said the current maximum of 99 weeks of combined state and federal benefits causes hiring trouble for companies in her North Carolina district.
"Back in my district, the 99 weeks of unemployment has been a huge issue for my small business owners," Ellmers said. "They have jobs right now that they could be filling and yet they're not because people are living out that time and now they're dropping off. That's why we see an unemployment rate now down to 8.6 percent. Not because thousands of jobs are being created, but because people are simply not looking for jobs anymore."
Part of the recent decline in the unemployment rate was indeed caused by more than 300,000 people dropping out of the workforce in November, but not because they had unemployment insurance. Federal law requires workers receiving benefits to continue looking for work and therefore remain part of the workforce. A recent study found that the 99 weeks of benefits slightly increased the jobless rate because it kept folks looking.
"What a better way for us to increase that 1 percent to 2 percent, if we all come together, not as Republicans against Democrats, but as all Americans, working together with the Senate, working together with the president," Ellmers said.
As for the richest 2 percent, Democrats have supported increasing their taxes by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for people with incomes above $250,000, which the White House said would raise $866 billion over 10 years.
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