Congress must get to work on jobless benefits

The Oregonian
January 25, 2014By David Sarasohn

Not many people might notice, but Congress goes back to work on Monday. It has some unfinished business with millions of Americans, and tens of thousands of Oregonians, who don’t.

At the end of the year, Congress refused to renew extended unemployment benefits, federal funding to extend unemployment payments beyond 26 weeks in economic hard times – a policy that the feds have been following since 2008 and the Bush administration. Republican congressional leaders want costs to be paid for by cutting something else, and besides, extending unemployment benefits makes it too comfortable to stay jobless.

We’ve got to get people out of this $290-a-week hammock.

Unemployment is indeed down, with Oregon now inching down to 7 percent. But a lot of the drop is due to people giving up on looking for jobs, and the state estimates 132,000 Oregonians are still unemployed – a lot more than the jobs available. The unemployment rate is still higher than it was in 2008 when the feds began the emergency extensions. There are also still areas in Oregon where a 7 percent unemployment rate seems as remote as a healthy timber industry.

Immediately, more than 20,000 unemployed Oregonians lost benefits, with an estimated 1,100 more dropping off every week as they hit the new 26-week limit. “We’ve had a couple of these where a large number of people will drop off,” Tom Fuller of the Oregon Employment Department told OPB. “But this is quite a dropoff in terms of the sheer number of people not collecting benefits.”

In a state the size of Oregon, the impact will be felt throughout the economy. The impact is magnified by last November’s food stamp cut, and the likely deeper cut in the program in the new farm bill – if Congress ever passes a new farm bill.

“It’s going to be felt in communities around the state,” says Chuck Sheketoff of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. “The food banks, the social safety net, the churches are going to feel it.”

Of course, Congress will be coming back Monday, and sometimes Congress actually does something. And in the kind of time away that Congress determinedly refers to as a Constituent Work Week, congressmen must have run into some of their constituents being cut loose in a still unforgiving economy.

But Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., doesn’t envision a lot of unemployment reality breaking through at town meetings.

“These are people who are pretty much beaten down,” he notes. “They have about a 25 percent voting rate. They’re not Facebooking and tweeting about the fact that they’re losing benefits.”

They are, in fact, easy to overlook, unless you’re running a food pantry.

Or until you see the cutoff’s effect on your broader local economy.

“This should be one of the easiest things we do,” says Blumenauer. “If it hadn’t been for the ideological lines in the sand that have been drawn, I would feel better. People are so dug in rhetorically and philosophically.”

The insistence that unemployed people have it too easy, and that government money shouldn’t be going to people who don’t work and produce, goes deep in certain elements of this Congress. But it may be a curious place for this belief to flourish. The 2013 session of this Congress was, after all, the least productive in history. Through the end of the year, Congress produced a historic low of 72 laws passed by both houses and signed by the president. Nobody knows how low the number would be if it didn’t include post office renamings, because even what were once everyday efforts now stump the Capitol.

As the political web site headlined last week, “Even small ball too much for Congress.”

You could even wonder how much of a work ethic is involved here. According to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s calendar, the House of Representatives is scheduled to meet for a total of 111 days in 2014. Moreover, a lot of those might actually qualify as half-days, Mondays with guarantees of no votes until 6 p.m., Fridays and even Thursdays will pledges of no votes after 3:30 p.m.

There is, of course, a philosophy, generally held a certain distance from shut-down mills and factories and the lines at unemployment offices, that any support just encourages people not to work. But the current Congress seems a strange place for the belief that government support for the unproductive leads to moral decline.

Then again, they might have a point.

Fair Use Policy