Republicans Resisting Extending Jobless Benefits
By David Goldstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Wednesday 14 May 2003
WASHINGTON - Margaret Johnson-Motley, a former Kansas City, Mo., education aide, stays up nearly every night job-hunting on the Internet. She's 55, she's been out of work for months and she's exhausted her regular unemployment benefits.
Nationwide, there are at least 2.8 million unemployed workers like Johnson-Motley, and the federal program that's providing them with temporary help expires at the end of May. Congressional Democrats are pushing for an extension; Republicans are resisting.
If lawmakers had ever been unemployed, Johnson-Motley complained recently, they "wouldn't have a debate about whether or not to extend benefits. When people are unemployed, especially people who have worked all their lives, that's the same as being homeless."
Using the latest Labor Department statistics, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research center that specializes in worker issues, calculates that nearly 4 million unemployed Americans will lose jobless benefits by year's end if they aren't extended.
If the problem sounds familiar, that's because Congress wrestled with the same issue at the end of last year, when the Temporary Extended Unemployment Compensation program expired the first time. Created in March 2002, it provided emergency federal benefits through the end of the year to workers who'd exhausted their 26 weeks of state-funded unemployment insurance. The average weekly benefit nationally under the program is $249.
The Senate then crafted a bipartisan plan late last year to allow workers an additional 13 weeks of benefits. Republicans in the House of Representatives balked - they wanted five weeks - and Congress adjourned without taking action.
More than 800,000 people then got letters saying their unemployment benefits would end a week after Christmas. President Bush stepped in, and the extension became the first measure that the new Congress passed in January.
Fast-forward to this month: While working on the Republicans' $421 billion tax-cut bill last week, the Senate Finance Committee refused a Democratic amendment to extend the unemployment program by another 13 weeks.
The same day, the Republican-led House turned down a similar amendment while passing a $6.6 billion job-training bill.
On Wednesday, as unemployed people picketed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao's department, Democrats tried and failed to insert the extension into a measure on the House floor. It would cost $13 billion to $15 billion by year's end.
"The best thing for folks who are unemployed is a job," said Pete Jeffries, a spokesman for Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Jeffries said the president's proposed "jobs and growth package will create 1.2 million jobs by end of 2004."
"Try telling people who are looking for work that the answer is a job," countered Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., the sponsor of a plan to extend benefits. "They know that. They're trying to find one. There aren't any."
Levin called the Republicans' answer "insensitive at best and insulting at worst."
Some members of Congress believe that extending unemployment benefits contributes to joblessness.
At a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing last month, chairman Wally Herger, R-Calif., said: "Some of what we will learn is that unemployment benefits can actually discourage work. That is troubling and worth our attention."
To Johnson-Motley, that's absurd.
"When you draw unemployment," she said, "you have no medical benefits, there's no contribution to Social Security for your retirement benefits, you're not participating in a 401(k). People would rather have a job so they have enough money to pay bills and have medical benefits."
The White House has been vague about extending benefits. Noting that President Bush supported the first extension, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said recently that, "Unemployment remains a key concern for the president, and this is an issue on which we will work with the Congress."
Bush's economic-stimulus plan includes a proposal called "re-employment accounts."
Under his plan, states would set up accounts, each with $3,000 in federal money, to enable the unemployed to pay for job training and other services, such as day care and transportation. If they find work and still have money remaining, they can keep the balance.
"The president believes that the flexible new approach gives the unemployed more control over their access to training and to services," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Supporters of extended benefits argue that the employment crisis is worse now than it was in January, when Congress approved the first extension.
Unemployment was 6 percent last month, according to the Labor Department, compared with 5.7 percent in January. That's the highest level in nearly a decade.
Clyde McQueen, the president of the Full Employment Council, a private nonprofit corporation that helps people like Johnson-Motley find jobs, said the difference between the current economic downturn and recessions in 1992 and 1984 was that more middle- and upper-level income jobs have been lost now.
"It's also taking longer for the jobless to find work," he said.