For those jobless workers whose only source of income for the past several months has been an unemployment benefits check, the news out of Washington on Thursday night must have been a relief. Extension benefits expired at the end of November and those eligible for unemployment benefits in the Tier system of extensions were facing losing their sole source or part of their income — at least until funds for the extensions were reauthorized.
But at midnight Thursday, according to the New York Times, the U. S. House of Representatives passed the unemployment extension and Bush tax cuts compromise bill (H.R.4853), reauthorizing unemployment benefits extensions for 13 additional months for the four Tiers of extensions and emergency extensions for those eligible.
The passage didn’t occur without a little in-House drama. Earlier in the day, House Democratic leaders pulled the bill from the floor for fear there wasn’t enough support to proceed with the procedure vote (which had to be accepted before the actual measure was put up for a final vote). Later, after Democrats in the House failed to pass an amendment to the compromise bill, one that would have altered the estate tax break negotiated by the White House and Senate Republicans (and generally abhorred by Democrats), legislators passed the measure 277 to 148.
President Obama is expected to sign the bill on Friday.
Some of the long-term unemployed had already stopped receiving benefits, feeling the discomfiture of accumulating bills and less income with which to pay those same bills. In some instances, the unemployment benefits payouts were the only household income. It has been estimated that of the 6.3 million long-term unemployed, 2 million would have seen their benefits expire before year’s end, with another 2 million losing benefits by February.
Passage of the bill will restore benefits to those who continue to be eligible, which is determined by guidelines within each state. Department of Labor statistics indicate that nearly half of all jobless individuals in the U.S. are long-term (27 weeks or longer without a job).
In the ongoing debate over whether or not to continue approving unemployment extension benefits (many conservative Republicans, especially Tea Party Republicans), much has been misunderstood. It is unknown how many of the legislators actually understood exactly what they were voting for or against when it came to unemployment extensions. Several seemed to believe that the unemployment benefits extension provision of the compromise bill would extend funds to 99ers, or those who had been jobless for over 99 weeks (the maximum in some — but not all — states where an individual could receive benefits).
But it did not. The provision simply reauthorized funds for payouts to those jobless eligible to receive unemployment benefits within the Tier categories (there are four) of the payout system. The provision in no way affects regular unemployment recipients (the first 26 weeks) or provides for assistance after a recipient becomes ineligible (and, if they remain jobless, a 99er).
At present, there is no legislation being seriously considered for the millions of Americans who have exhausted their regular, extended, and emergency extended unemployment benefits (the 99ers), although there has been some rumbling in Congress that there should be something done for those individuals as well.
Congress had never denied a reauthorization of unemployment benefits in its history (when the unemployment rate topped 7 percent; the rate at present is 9.8 percent). With H.R.4853’s passage, it still has not, although doing so has now become a topic of intense political debate and not as automatic as it once was. Each of the three reauthorizations conducted in 2010 were passed after heated and sometimes ideology-driven debate, the second lasting for months, leaving the long-term unemployed with expired benefits for nearly two months.
The unemployment benefits extensions reauthorization will expire at the end of 2011. In the meantime, a slowly reviving economy and a flat job market is expected to produce another 4 or 5 million 99ers, possibly doubling the current number. And even though the unemployment rate is not expected to fall below the 9 percent mark throughout the year, there is little doubt that, given the increased Republican (and Tea Party Republican) legislative presence and a sudden Party adherence to fiscal and national debt responsibility, there will be an even more intense debate over continuing benefits to the jobless.
The question is: What happens at the end of 2011 when the unemployment benefits expire, the jobless rate is still above 9 percent, there are no jobs, the Republicans control the House of Representatives, and there aren’t billions of dollars in Bush tax cuts (as there were in the current compromise bill) with which to bargain? It is a question that will have to be answered next December… or January… or February…
David M. Herszenhorn, “Congress Sends $801 Billion Tax Cut Bill To Obama,” NYTimes.com