COMMENTARY | Do you feel like you were being set up? After watching Congress bicker and posture over the unemployment extension issue for the past few weeks (because it apparently wasn’t important enough to work on until the benefits actually expired), it has come to this: millions of America’s unemployed (read: the formerly employed who lost their jobs through no fault of their own) began losing their benefits on December 1. Those benefits included the extensions and emergency extensions that needed reauthorization in order for the jobless to hold on to a lifeline that in many cases was all or a large portion of household incomes that were keeping the unemployed solvent. Senate Republicans refuse to talk about anything other than the Bush tax cuts until that issue is resolved while the Democrats continue to introduce bills that the Republicans block due to no provisions being made for offsetting the expenditures. Now, although it would seem that the two parties are at an impasse, they’re not. They are now ready to make a deal.
Senate Republicans, according to OpenCongress.org, filibustered two Democratic bills Saturday, effectively blocking legislation for unemployment extensions with the first block. The first bill would have extended the Bush tax cuts to all but 2 percent of income earners — the nation’s wealthiest — and reauthorized the unemployment benefits extensions for another year. The second bill was like the first, except that it would have extended the Bush tax cuts to income earners who make up to $1 million.
Republicans have long been obstructing the passage of any unemployment benefits legislation that does not have some form of reciprocal government revenue generator or an expenditure offset, such as taking funds from unused appropriations. Their argument is that passing legislation for the unemployment benefits extensions and the emergency extensions (the Tier categories of unemployment compensation), heretofore always paid for under emergency funding rules (which do not require offsets), only adds to the deficit and the overall national debt.
Democrats counter the argument by noting that unemployment benefits extensions are one way of floating the fragile economy, as those on unemployment generally place nearly every penny of their benefits directly back into the economy. There is the added argument that without the benefits, millions will lose their homes, vehicles, and, in some cases, be unable to pay simple household bills. They point out that the federal government has never denied the jobless an unemployment extension when the national unemployment rate exceeded 7.2 percent (November’s rate: 9.8 percent). And until the last few reauthorizations, there has never been a real debate over passing reauthorization bills (even those that came before the Republican-majority Congress of the Bush administration) that had to have offsets.
But the battle lines were drawn earlier in the year when Republicans fought against and blocked the reauthorization of benefits for nearly two months in the Summer, while knowing that they would have to take up the issue again in November and/or December. With the coming of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, Republicans found their cause. They wanted the tax cuts to extend to every income earner, not just those making $200,000 or less (individuals) or $250,000 or less (joint-filers). Their contention was that it would hurt the economy to return to the tax system in place before the Bush tax cuts were first implemented.
Democrats have countered that the nation had no fiscal deficit under that system and that the crushing national debt was actually being paid off when George W. Bush assumed office in 2001. They also note that the continuation of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent of American income earners will add over $800 billion to the national debt over the coming decade.
But Republicans have been intransigent, voting as a nearly immovable bloc. And now, with unemployment benefits extensions again in limbo, with millions set to lose those benefits in the coming weeks and tripling the size of the 99ers (those who have seen their unemployment benefits, extensions, and emergency extensions exhausted), Senate Republicans have refused to talk about any other legislation until the tax cuts are resolved.
Saturday’s filibuster blocking the unemployment extensions and tax cut proposals favored by Democrats amounts to basic posturing on the part of both political parties. They know exactly where all the jockeying is headed.
For Democrats to circumvent the Republican filibuster, they need 60 votes, something they do not have at present and will be further away from come the convening of the 112th Congress in January (where their majority of 58 senators falls to 53). A deal will have to be made for unemployment benefits extensions to be passed.
Anything that Republicans want passed in the coming Congress will still have to get past a Democrat-majority Senate and a Democratic president’s veto pen, even though they will maintain a heavy majority in the House of Representatives. Democrats know that delaying will see any Senate-sponsored unemployment legislation blocked by the Republican House. To get around a potential gridlock, a deal made before the convening of the next Congress would seem to be most opportune.
For Republicans to get their 2 percent Bush tax cuts, it appears that they are going to have to acquiesce to the Democrats’ demands for at least a year’s extension on the unemployment benefits. It is as yet uncertain how long the Democrats might be willing to allow the tax cuts to be extended. Reports vary from a year to three years.
But the skeptics among us seem to see that all the posturing, the accusing, and the delaying have all been geared to this end, where both the Republicans and Democrats get what they want while being able to blame the other for any shortfalls or problems in the legislating. The Republicans will get all their Bush tax cuts. The Democrats will get their unemployment extensions. In the end, everybody is satisfied.
Everybody except the thousands-adding-up-to-millions of unemployed whose benefits are expiring on a daily basis while Congressmen making $174,000 per year delay making a deal they have known they were going to make anyway.