Is It Time to Declare the Death of Emergency Unemployment Insurance?

The odds of a UI extension happening took a serious hit this week.

NORTH MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 07: A job seeker looks at a list of jobs available as the Senate votes on extending the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
July 17, 2014, 4:15 p.m.

Demo­crats in Con­gress and a hand­ful of Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors have strived over the last sev­en months to re­new emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits for the mil­lions of Amer­ic­an work­ers who have been liv­ing without a job for more than six months. But this week, once again, House Re­pub­lic­ans pulled the rug out from un­der them, leav­ing pro­spects for the pro­gram’s con­tinu­ation at an all-time low.

Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Is­land and Dean Heller of Nevada, who hail from the states with the highest un­em­ploy­ment rates in the coun­try, re­leased their second draft un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance pro­pos­al last month. As with pre­vi­ous it­er­a­tions of the re­new­al plan, this le­gis­la­tion was paid for — ful­filling a ma­jor re­quire­ment passed down by House Re­pub­lic­ans.

Un­for­tu­nately for UI ad­voc­ates, the House just used those same off­sets — which Re­pub­lic­ans called “gim­micks” when they were at­tached to the un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance le­gis­la­tion — to pay for an­oth­er bill, for the High­way Trust Fund. That move sent Reed and Heller back to the draw­ing board. Again.

“I think it’s very re­veal­ing that, you know, now [the pay-fors are] not a gim­mick [to House Re­pub­lic­ans], but it’s a very prudent way to re­spond to the fisc­al is­sues of the High­way Trust Fund,” said Reed, a Demo­crat.

Asked about the House’s ap­par­ent evol­u­tion of opin­ion, House Speak­er John Boehner’s spokes­man Mi­chael Steel said: “These are bi­par­tis­an pay-fors that have been sup­por­ted by both parties in the past.” He also ad­ded that the High­way Trust Fund in­cluded a third off­set, tak­ing money from the Leak­ing Un­der­ground Stor­age Tank fund (or LUST).

Heller, a Re­pub­lic­an who has been work­ing to get his former col­leagues in the GOP-led House be­hind an ex­ten­sion and met with in­com­ing House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy to dis­cuss the is­sue last month, ex­pressed frus­tra­tion Wed­nes­day. But, he ad­ded: “This is Con­gress. So some things just don’t sur­prise me. And this one didn’t.”

“You know, it’s nice to sort of be copied, in some re­spects, but then it’s not nice,” Reed said of the pay-fors.

Pro­spects for pas­sage of a new un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance bill ap­pear dim. It’s been sev­en months since the emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment-in­sur­ance pro­gram ex­pired and, so far, no pro­gress has been made in the House. Boehner con­tin­ues to in­sist that he will not bring up le­gis­la­tion without a sep­ar­ate jobs pro­vi­sion at­tached to it, and that’s a no-go in the Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate. And with Au­gust re­cess on the ho­ri­zon and an elec­tion in Novem­ber, the House is sched­uled to work for just 35 more days in Wash­ing­ton this year.

But Reed and Heller in­sist that they haven’t — and won’t — give up. The two sen­at­ors plan to sit down and find new off­sets for the le­gis­la­tion that garner suf­fi­cient sup­port from both parties — no easy task, par­tic­u­larly in the House, where new spend­ing isn’t of­ten greeted with “yea” votes.

Aside from Reed and Heller, however, there ap­pears to be little ap­pet­ite in Con­gress to deal with the is­sue. Even ad­voc­ates for the pro­gram say that Reed and Heller’s work is un­likely to get them any­where this year. “Giv­en where we are in the cal­en­dar, I think it is highly un­likely,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has voted for an ex­ten­sion of the pro­gram sev­er­al times this year, said Thursday.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has also voted to ex­tend un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance, wasn’t very op­tim­ist­ic about the pro­gram’s chances of re­new­al in this Con­gress either. “I think it’s go­ing to be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to come up with a bill that could pass the House. I was hop­ing that our earli­er ef­fort, which was bi­par­tis­an, would have done it. But it didn’t,” she said.

If Re­pub­lic­ans take over the Sen­ate in Novem­ber, the path for un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance be­comes even steep­er. But even if Demo­crats man­age to hold onto the up­per cham­ber, it’s not clear that there will be an ap­pet­ite for re­new­ing the pro­gram in the next Con­gress. “It’s dif­fi­cult to say. I mean, how do we fore­cast the strength of the eco­nomy, the un­em­ploy­ment num­bers?” Murkowski said, of try­ing to bring the pro­gram back in the fu­ture. “I think you nev­er say nev­er. But I think prob­ably for the time be­ing we’re not go­ing in that dir­ec­tion.”

Even if emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits are not re­newed, the un­der­ly­ing pro­gram — which was passed un­der Frank­lin Delano Roosevelt as a safety net in the Great De­pres­sion — re­mains un­touched. In most states, it provides com­pens­a­tion for 26 weeks for un­em­ployed work­ers who are seek­ing a new job, though some states cut off the be­ne­fits much earli­er — as in North Car­o­lina, which provides just 20 total weeks of be­ne­fits.

It’s after that dead­line that emer­gency un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits kick in — or they did, un­til the fed­er­ally-fun­ded pro­gram ex­pired in Decem­ber. Al­though the un­em­ploy­ment rate is de­clin­ing na­tion­ally, the rate for the long-term un­em­ployed re­mains stub­bornly high. That’s why, Heller and Reed say, they’re still fight­ing.

Al­though he ac­know­ledges that many be­lieve his task is nearly im­possible, Reed says he’s heard that be­fore. “Frankly, no one thought it was pos­sible — or very few thought it was pos­sible — to get a bill through the Sen­ate with bi­par­tis­an sup­port. We did. In fact, we hoped that would en­cour­age the House to act re­spons­ibly, and it didn’t. So we’re not go­ing to give up,” he said.

“We won’t give up. We’ll just keep try­ing. I think we’ve made that clear now for months where we’ve tried, we’ve suc­ceeded, we’ve been re­buffed, we’ve tried again.”

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