The New York Times
June 23, 2010
It was bad enough when the Senate left town for a long Memorial Day break without passing a bill to extend expiring unemployment benefits. It's worse now.
Back in session for nearly three weeks, the Senate still has not acted. That means that 900,000 jobless workers have already lost their benefits, a number that will swell to an estimated 1.6 million people if an extension is not passed by the July Fourth holiday. Lost benefits -- the average check is $309 a week -- deprives struggling Americans of cash they need for buying food, paying the rent or mortgage and other essentials.
All indications are that when the Senate finally does pass a bill, it will be stingy and cynical -- hacking away at jobless benefits and fiscal aid to cash-strapped states, while preserving tax breaks for the wealthy and other well-connected political donors.
The problem, as always, is getting 60 votes to overcome hurdles imposed by the Republican minority. But Republicans aren't the only culprits here.
Passage was delayed last week as several Democratic senators -- including John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mark Warner of Virginia and Maria Cantwell of Washington -- worked to water down a provision in the bill that would have largely closed an unfair loophole that benefits rich fund managers in investment partnerships. Unfortunately, the senators seem to have won that fight.
This has led to even more maneuvering. Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican of Maine, is now trying to eliminate another tax provision in the bill. The provision, which would raise roughly $9 billion over 10 years, would stop owners of some small corporations from overpaying themselves in profits and underpaying themselves in salary to lessen their payroll taxes.
At the same time, many lawmakers -- mostly Republicans, but not all -- are claiming that extending jobless benefits and aid to states is simply too costly. That may sound like good politics, but it is very bad economics. If the government fails to keep spending when the economy is weak, especially on core safety-net issues, it will only worsen unemployment and impede the chances of recovery.
Neither basic economics nor basic decency seems to matter. To win votes for passage, the Democratic leadership has agreed to drop the extra $25 a week that was added to unemployment benefits last year as part of the stimulus package. That would cut $6 billion from the roughly $40 billion it would cost to extend benefits through November. Senate leaders also are considering sizable cuts to the bill's proposed $24 billion aid package for the states.
It's unclear if even those cutbacks will be enough to win passage. What is clear is that unemployment is high, the safety net is frayed and the Senate has other priorities than helping struggling Americans.