WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Bill Knight - July 15

Macomb, IL – Congress must extend jobless benefits for unemployed Americans, not focus on spending or impeding recovery in transparent ploys to play politics. Without an extension, more than 200,000 Americans a week will lose unemployment compensation benefits. More than 1 million people have lost benefits since the last extension ended in May.

But Republicans suddenly push the notion that the government has a sizable debt, and decided that deficit spending is bad (and good politics). This after years of presiding over funding the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have cost more than $1 trillion, according to Congressional Budget Office - much less dismantling economic regulations, leading to the Great Recession.

The refusal by all but two moderate Republican Senators (Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins) to move a $33 billion Senate bill forward killed the late-June attempt to extend benefits to the long-term jobless. The vote was 58-38, but less than the 60 needed to break the Republican filibuster.

This followed an earlier effort that packaged an extension of jobless benefits with aid to cash-strapped states, a new tax on buyout-firm managers and restoring business tax cuts to add up to a $110 billion measure. That Senate bill also was killed by a GOP filibuster, despite a vote of 57-41 in support.

A House version also was defeated June 29 in a special procedure that limited debate and permitted no amendments, but a two-thirds vote was needed. The final tally in the House was 261-155, an overwhelming majority but short of the two-thirds requirement.

The GOP will be to blame if state and local workers are without jobs this fall - and when the economy slides backward, according to Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. He said, "Senate Republicans are on the verge of killing the Senate jobs bill. Their reckless filibuster and obstructionist actions will force devastating cuts in public services and major job losses in both the public and private sectors. Increased unemployment will lead to larger deficits. Republicans will be to blame when our economy lapses back into a recession."

Thoughtful conservatives as well as concerned progressives notice the GOP's hypocrisy.

W. James Antle III in The American Conservative magazine wrote, "The 1990s were the last time Republicans cared about balanced budgets and talked about shrinking government. In 1970, defense accounted for 42% of the budget, while the big entitlements - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - stood at 20%.. By 2008, those figures were almost exactly reversed, albeit with the wars conveniently pushed off-budget."

Besides spending on military adventures, Republicans for years favored deficit spending to pay for George W. Bush's tax cuts. That meant $2.4 trillion less in the federal treasury with most of the tax breaks going into the pockets of the wealthiest 5% of Americans. Now, the Republican Party says it wants to cut the budget deficit.

Tom McMahon, acting director of Americans United for Change, said, "The same Republicans who are drawing this illogical line in the sand on the short-term deficit had no problem coming up with the money to bail out the Wall Street banks [or] throwing Bush's prescription drug program or the war in Iraq on the nation's credit card."

Elsewhere, economic recovery plans to help road construction and provide incentives for green jobs are stalled amid the GOP's new focus on deficit and debt. Right here, right now, the nation is at a crossroads with the unemployed seemingly helpless in the middle of the intersection.

There are few things Congress can do that could have a more immediate and positive effect on Americans and the U.S. economy than extending unemployment benefits. Almost every dollar paid out would quickly be spent by regular people trying to get by -- not lazy bums, as suggested by U.S. Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who opposed the extension and asked, "Is the government now creating hobos?"

Many of the unemployed are people who worked for years and remain eager to work but are trapped in a job market that lost about 8 million jobs in the last three years.

Extending unemployment insurance until the economy improves is what Congress must do sooner rather than later.

Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University