I’m certain many of you have been watching the unfolding – seemingly in slow-motion – debate on extending unemployment benefits. Then again, I’m also certain that quite a few of my fellow citizens haven’t given it more thought than which sunscreen to bring to the beach. After all, it is July. This is hardly the time of year when political juices get flowing for most of the electorate.
However, I have two strikes against me when thinking about this: for one, I am an admitted political junkie and two; I am one of those approximately 6,800,000 Americans who has been officially unemployed for longer than 6 months. (That’s a pretty dismal number, but it’s actually rosy when compared to the long-term underemployment number and the actual numbers of Americans who have been unemployed so long that the feds stopped counting them. But I digress.) So, I’ve been watching and listening with keen interest.
Being fiscally conservative (ok, ϋber-conservative) and also unable to secure new, permanent employment, I find myself torn between the two very real issues at play. Those two issues are, to put it simply, how do we reconcile a real need to prevent utter destitution for the millions like myself – and at the same time, do it in a way that doesn’t further bankrupt the country? It seems to most reasonable Americans that the proposal put forth by the Republican caucus – paying for the cost of extending unemployment benefits by using some of the remaining funds from last year’s gargantuan stimulus package – is a good compromise. Why the Democratic caucus is so opposed to the idea has been beyond me. After all, even that most liberal of economists, Paul Krugman has said repeatedly that unemployment benefits are “a highly effective form of stimulus.” Congress loves “earmarks,” or setting aside money for pet projects. In an election year when there are likely upwards of 20 million voters who face the prospect of losing everything on a daily basis, it seems logical that Congress would earmark $38 billion of pre-existing expenditures on a pretty popular program. It would be a win-win, something that almost never happens for a politician: they could claim both the labels of “caring liberal” and “fiscal conservative” with one vote. So why won’t they?
The answer (as with almost everything Congress does these days) lies in the details. The program is part of H.R. 4213, a 412 page megalith that deals with a whole of stuff not at all related to employment or economic stimulus. In fact, the section dealing with the benefit extensions is Title V, subtitle A of the bill. It incorporates all of 9 ½ pages of the bill.
I’m sure you’re asking yourself what could be in the other 402 pages of the bill. Well, here are a few highlights. Feel free to hit the link and read it for yourself:
*Provisions to build sewer systems
*Alternative fuels vehicle credits
*Energy efficient appliance tax credits
*New standards for windows and doors (You can’t make this up, folks)
*Railroad track maintenance credits
*Rum excise tax relief for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Hey, even if we’re all broke, at least we should be able to swig cheap rum, get drunk and forget this mess!
The list goes on and on. There are over 500 individual line items in this bill. Not only have our congressmen been busy putting earmarks into this thing, it seems they’ve taken special care to pack it with more pork than a Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage. No wonder they couldn’t find the $38 billion! (By the way, by the Obama administrations own estimates, there should be nearly $340 billion left from last year’s budget buster.)
Oh, and one final note regarding the supposed disincentive of providing unemployment benefits: In ordinary times, I agree that extending unemployment benefits can be a disincentive to finding gainful employment. But these are not ordinary times; not when estimates range from five to eight people for every available job opening. And speaking from personal experience, I can assure you that getting 30% of my prior earnings in an unemployment check doesn’t exactly meet my monthly commitments. Here’s hoping Sen. Jon Kyl and Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle, who have publicly espoused this thought, take a good look around their respective states and come to their senses. They are not properly representing their constituents, their party or the nation as long as they hold that view.