Unemployment-Insurance Extension’s Problems Go Past House Republicans

It’s not just about the politics.

Matthew Giarmo of Alexandria, Virginia, who lost his contract job with the Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, holds up a sign seeking a job with a lower salary than he would normally ask on a street corner October 8, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
April 9, 2014, 1 a.m.

It’s been two days since the Sen­ate sent a five-month ex­ten­sion of un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance be­ne­fits to the House and, counter to some op­tim­ist­ic Demo­crat­ic think­ing, Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship hasn’t moved a muscle.

But even as Demo­crats ramp up the pres­sure on Speak­er John Boehner and his col­leagues, it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that even if the le­gis­la­tion clears the House, many prob­lems still lie ahead.

For one, the bill ex­pires on May 31, when the long, wind­ing con­gres­sion­al de­bate over in­sur­ance for job­less Amer­ic­ans will be­gin once again. The chances of an ex­ten­sion passing the House this week be­fore mem­bers leave for a two-week East­er re­cess are near zero, mean­ing that at best the long-term un­em­ployed are look­ing at five weeks of be­ne­fits.

But the real prob­lem is the ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits. The cur­rent bill, which passed the Sen­ate on Monday, also in­cludes ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits for those who stopped re­ceiv­ing their checks on Dec. 31. But, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post, the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of State Work­force Agen­cies has some real con­cerns about wheth­er it will be pos­sible to get those lump-sum checks out to the un­em­ployed.

Many states have stopped keep­ing track of people in the un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance pro­gram, and find­ing them — much less as­sur­ing that they con­tin­ued to look for work after their be­ne­fits ex­pired, as is re­quired un­der the pro­gram — will be nearly im­possible, NASWA Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Richard Hob­bie told The Post. And even if they clear that hurdle, it could be up to three months be­fore those people get their checks, Hob­bie said.

Demo­crats dis­agree, and point to a let­ter Labor Sec­ret­ary Thomas Perez sent to sen­at­ors last month. “In pri­or it­er­a­tions of [emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment com­pens­a­tion] where there has been a gap in the pro­gram, we have suc­cess­fully over­come this chal­lenge, and the De­part­ment already has guid­ance on how to carry out such a dir­ect­ive,” Perez wrote. “We are con­fid­ent that we could suc­cess­fully ad­dress this chal­lenge again.”

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who led un­em­ploy­ment talks in the Sen­ate, poin­ted out that Perez once served as the labor com­mis­sion­er for Mary­land and has seen the im­ple­ment­a­tion of ret­ro­act­ive un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits first-hand. “I think this is something well with­in the cap­ab­il­ity of the states,” Reed ar­gued.

But even Demo­crats ad­mit that im­ple­ment­ing ret­ro­act­ive pay will be dif­fi­cult and time-con­sum­ing. And House Re­pub­lic­ans are not let­ting the NASWA’s con­cerns go: Boehner’s of­fice cir­cu­lated the Wash­ing­ton Post story out­lining those wor­ries on Tues­day.

In re­sponse to those con­cerns, House Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er posed the pro­spect last week of merely re­new­ing the emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment-be­ne­fits pro­gram be­gin­ning in May and for­get­ting about ret­ro­act­ive pay al­to­geth­er.

“There are three times as many people look­ing for jobs as there are jobs avail­able — and we are adding 72,000 people on a weekly basis to the un­em­ployed roles,” Hoy­er told Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor on the House floor Fri­day. “So if we made it pro­spect­ive [rather than ret­ro­act­ive], that would save an aw­ful lot of people the pain and suf­fer­ing that they are ex­per­i­en­cing be­cause they can’t find a job.”

Hoy­er ad­ded for clar­ity that he does not “ac­cept [the] premise” of the NAWSA’s let­ter to mem­bers of Con­gress out­lining their con­cerns about im­ple­ment­a­tion.

Can­tor didn’t dir­ectly an­swer the ques­tion but ar­gued, as Boehner has on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions, that the House should fo­cus on cre­at­ing more jobs for the long-term un­em­ployed, rather than on pay­ing them be­ne­fits. Boehner spokes­man Mi­chael Steel said Tues­day that even without ret­ro­act­ive pay, Re­pub­lic­ans are still con­cerned about the fact that the Sen­ate bill lacks spe­cif­ic job-cre­ation pro­vi­sions.

Of course, do­ing away with ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits would pull the teeth out of the Sen­ate’s le­gis­la­tion un­less the re­newed un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­ne­fits were ex­ten­ded bey­ond the cur­rent May 31 dead­line.

Demo­crats are not dis­cuss­ing the pos­sib­il­ity of do­ing away with ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits at the mo­ment, said Rep. Sander Lev­in of Michigan and oth­er Demo­crat­ic law­makers and aides in­volved in the pro­cess. Hoy­er’s com­ments were aimed more at get­ting Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship on the re­cord op­pos­ing an­oth­er solu­tion — and con­ces­sion from Demo­crats — rather than of­fer­ing a new Demo­crat­ic pro­pos­al, one aide spec­u­lated.

“I think we’re open to do­ing any­thing that gets the Re­pub­lic­ans in the House to move,” Rep. Xavi­er Be­cerra, D-Cal­if., said Tues­day. “But we’ve got something that’s passed bi­par­tis­an in the Sen­ate and I think a lot of us be­lieve that un­less the House Re­pub­lic­ans tell us that they’re ready to do something that we can live with, it’s bet­ter to try to go with what the Sen­ate pro­posed.”

In re­sponse to House Re­pub­lic­ans’ con­cerns, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who sup­por­ted the un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance bill in the Sen­ate, called on her col­leagues in the House to pass their own ver­sion of the un­em­ploy­ment bill and send it back. “If they be­lieve that that is an in­sur­mount­able prob­lem, then I would en­cour­age them to send us a bill that per­haps causes people to have to re­apply and show that they’re still un­em­ployed and go for­ward,” Collins said, not­ing that she would have to look at any such House pro­pos­al be­fore say­ing wheth­er she could sup­port it.

“But my point is that I think there are solu­tions to the prob­lem,” she ad­ded.

Sen. Rob Port­man, R-Ohio, who worked with Collins on the Sen­ate’s ex­ten­sion bill, said “there might be” sup­port for a fix that did away with ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits, but said that their group spent little time on the is­sue be­cause of Demo­crat­ic com­mit­ments to re­im­burs­ing those who have lost their be­ne­fits since Decem­ber.

Asked about the is­sue Tues­day, Reed stuck by his bill. “Hope­fully, they’ll take up our bill right away and pass it,” he said.

Even so, con­cerns about the im­ple­ment­a­tion of ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits will likely be a large part of Sen. Dean Heller’s dis­cus­sions this week with Boehner about mov­ing the un­em­ploy­ment bill along. Though a meet­ing had not yet been sched­uled as of Tues­day, the Nevada Re­pub­lic­an’s of­fice has reached out to put one on the cal­en­dar and the sen­at­or has in­dic­ated that he would be open to mak­ing some con­ces­sions in or­der to get the bill through the House.

However, last week Heller dis­missed Boehner’s char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of the bill — and the ret­ro­act­ive be­ne­fits spe­cific­ally — as un­work­able. “I think it’s work­able. The Labor sec­ret­ary says it’s work­able, Nevada says it’s work­able. If some states can do it, then all states can do it. So, any­way, that’ll be the top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion,” Heller said.

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