Three days after Christmas, 910 residents of Ulster County will receive their last government checks for emergency unemployment compensation (EUC). They are among the 127,000 New Yorkers who are being cut off because the continuation of EUC benefits was not included in the two-year limited federal budget agreement struck in Congress between congressman Paul Ryan and senator Patty Murray, now passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the president.
The Ulster County EUC recipients, part of the 1.3 million ex-workers cut off by the end of the year nationwide, will be joined, according to the state Department of Labor, by 1140 residents of Dutchess County, 1658 former workers living in Orange County, and 360 in Sullivan County. In a relatively small labor such as the mid-Hudson, the impact of turning more than 4000 former EUC recipients overnight into “discouraged workers,” the economic term used to designate people not getting unemployment benefits and therefore no longer officially looking for work — often because there are no jobs to be found, is likely to be traumatic.
The euphoria following the limited national budget agreement on December 10 is an indicator of just how little Americans expect their federal legislators to be able to get done. Both sides in the budget deal, Republicans and Democrats alike, acknowledged that they hadn’t gotten all they wanted. Both faced bitter criticism from members of their own side. That, they explained, is what happens when people compromise in order to get something done.
Senator Murray had said a few weeks ago that there wouldn’t be a deal if EUC wasn’t extended. Then she said that provision wasn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. When the deal was announced, EUC wasn’t in it.
Earlier on the same day the deal was announced, local congressman Chris Gibson and six other Republicans sent a three-paragraph letter to their leadership, speaker John Boehner and majority leader Eric Cantor. Signed by three New York Republicans, two from New Jersey, and one each from Ohio and Nevada, the letter said in part, “[W]e respectfully request that the House consider a temporary extension of emergency unemployment insurance to protect an essential safeguard that has aided Americans who have endured through a weak economy.”
Though the letter noted respectfully that its authors had “stood with our colleagues in the House to advance legislation that would address the underlying causes of our stagnant economic growth and we appreciate your leadership and commitment on this issue,” it notably refrained from suggesting what the Republicans should get in return for supporting EUC.
According to Gibson, Boehner told him what he has since told others: that a separate EUC bill was still possible. The House speaker hasn’t been shy, however, about the price of Republican support: matters of the length of the extension, whether it should be conditional, how it should be paid for, and what sweeteners it could be packaged with (like tax cuts for business and other stimulus measures).
“We’ve worked all year to get our economy going again and to help produce better jobs and more wages,” Boehner said last week. “When the White House finally called me last Friday about extending unemployment benefits, I said that we would clearly consider it as long as it’s paid for and as long as there are other efforts that’ll help get our economy moving once again. I have not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards.”
“If Congress refuses to act, it won’t just hurt families already struggling,” president Barack Obama has said. “It will actually harm our economy. Unemployment insurance is one of the most effective ways there is to boost our economy.”
Maneuvering for political position on the extension has continued since the passage of the budget legislation. They continue today.
Democrats in Congress continue to push for an extension. Two senators from hard-hit states, Jack Reed from Rhode Island and Dean Heller from Nevada, have proposed a three-month extension of benefits, a variant of the kick-the-can-down-the-road approach.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid now expects to bring up a bill proposing a belated EUC extension in early January. Unless it gets caught up in the ocean of partisan grievances that the partisan sides have accumulated against each other, it’ll probably pass the Senate.
The House, where the Republicans have a majority, involves a much more problematic calculus. Many conservative Republicans contend that the economic recovery is far enough along that it is time to end the emergency program for the long-term unemployed.
In senator Rand Paul’s inflammatory and much-quoted phrasing, “You’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.” Paul contends that extension of unemployment benefits beyond 26 weeks “does a disservice to those workers.”
Gibson, by contrast, believes in the Safety Net. In discussing the issue of unemployment, he likes to refer to his own father’s experience with joblessness. The severity of the Great Recession in the congressional district he represents has been profound.
With signs that the economy may be strengthening, the political terrain on this issue may be shifting. On the one hand, the argument for including a trigger (the benefits could end when the level of unemployment decreases to a specific level) in the EUC extension is stronger. On the other, a stronger economy means more revenue to address the deficit problem, with the possible consequence that there’s less urgency to require offsetting savings.
Functions of leadership
Congressman Gibson is a member of the No Labels group, now grown to 85 members of Congress (77 in the House, eight in the Senate) who meet regularly “to build trust across the aisle.” The political struggle over Obamacare in 2010 made it obvious that the politicians in Washington needed to find a way to work together again, its leaders said. That’s when No Labels was born.
“Today, No Labels is building a voice for Americans, whatever their political ideology, to ensure our leaders in government will work across the aisle to solve problems,” its website declares. “We’re rebuilding the infrastructure for cooperation among our leaders. And we know that together, we can move our nation forward once again.”
Gibson sees bringing his colleagues together as a function of leadership. The congressman, in the second of a maximum of four terms to which he has self-limited himself, sees No Labels as a vehicle for bringing and using his leadership skills in Washington. As he sees it, No Labels is a collection of problem-solving legislators dedicated to learning how to work together in an atmosphere where people seem to have forgotten that basic skill.
These folks are not necessarily the moderates of both parties who have quite a bit in common with each other in their political stances. Interestingly, only three of the Republican congressmen who signed the letter asking for the extension of EUC — Gibson, Michael Grimm of Staten Island and David Joyce of Ohio — are members of No Labels. The other four — Joe Heck of Nevada, Jon Runyon and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, and Peter King of Long Island – are not.
Does Gibson think that Congress’ failure to include extended unemployment benefits in the two-year budget agreement crafted by Murray and Ryan make it less likely that a deal on EUC is now possible? “We’ll see,” says the congressman. “It’s too early to tell yet.”