WASHINGTON — The looming expiration of federal unemployment benefits raises the question of whether Democratic lawmakers bungled the debate.
Though Congress can still act retroactively, Democrats’ goal had been to pass an extension of the benefits before Dec. 28, when they are set to expire. The administration and allies on the Hill tried to attach a provision to the budget deal passed in mid-December. But by the time they began engaging the fight, few Democrats seemed particularly attentive and Republicans were more than comfortable running out the clock.
Now, with Congress in recess, long-term unemployment insurance will come to an end for 1.3 million Americans, potentially costing 240,000 jobs, according to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. Was it inevitable? Or was it a case of political mismanagement?
The record indicates that Democrats were late to show up, distracted in part by other concerns. A month and a half before the deadline, few members of Congress or administration officials were even talking about unemployment insurance. The first major mention from the White House came in mid-November, in a little-noticed remark from top economic adviser Gene Sperling during an interview at The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum.
“With an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent, we need to raise the emergency unemployment insurance and push for extensions to 2014,” Sperling said.
The statement received such scant attention that administration officials had to flag it for news outlets to ensure that the message actually got out. One day later, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney amplified Sperling’s remarks by declaring the president “believes we should extend this provision through the end of 2014, and we are confident that Congress will join us in this effort.”
But there was no reason for the White House to be confident. The shutdown of the federal government in October, followed by the disastrous launch of the president’s health care law, had commanded the spotlight. On the Hill, lawmakers were only casually paying attention to unemployment insurance, outside of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the benefits.
“It is true there were other major, major issues, and at times they seemed to be overshadowing this, but it’s not too late to act,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), the ranking member of that committee, said on a conference call Thursday. Levin noted that Democrats on the committee began raising concerns about the expiration of the benefits in early November.
But even then, most other members assumed that the issue would resolve itself as it has the past two times an extension was needed, when Republicans were more or less politically shamed into supporting it.
“Last year, there was no real debate over this. And the year before, Republicans got so hammered on it, they essentially had to do this by unanimous consent with their tail between their legs,” said one Democratic congressional aide. “I think Democrats could be generally forgiven for having assumed a little bit that this was something that Republicans would not put up a fight over, because it’s a losing issue for them.”
Republicans certainly learned a lesson from years past. But it wasn’t to acquiesce on unemployment insurance — rather, it was to keep their mouths shut. As a result, only a few members came out forcefully against extending benefits.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) caused a stir when he argued that the benefits turned job-seekers into welfare dependents. And Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, was probably the only high-ranking Republican to make a serious argument for dropping the benefits altogether. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, he pointed to North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled state legislature deliberately made the state ineligible for federal jobless aid.
“There, the program ended in July and the state has seen rapid job creation,” Camp said.
Camp’s argument was debunked by both liberal and conservative think tanks, which pointed out that North Carolina’s unemployment rate declined since July largely because benefit cuts pushed people out of the workforce.
A small group of House Republicans did send a letter urging for the benefits to be extended. But the effort gained little momentum and its organizer, Rep. Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), has stayed relatively quiet about the issue.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), meanwhile, stayed as ambiguous as possible. He would innocuously and repeatedly declare that he was open to looking at a proposal from the president to extend benefits and that he would judge that proposal on its merits. There is no evidence that President Barack Obama directly engaged Boehner’s office, aside from a discussion between the two men in early December.
“The President and senior members of his team have been pushing, and will continue to push to get unemployment insurance extended so families are able to make ends meet while fighting to find a job,” said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage.
Privately, the Republicans were stern in opposition, Democratic aides said. Levin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, urged for unemployment insurance to be a chief demand for Democrats during the crafting of a budget deal. But Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) demanded that the cost of the benefits — an estimated $25 billion for one year — be offset in a way that was acceptable to Republicans.
Publicly, the fight over renewing the benefits escalated as the deadline neared. Obama mentioned it in a much-touted speech on economic mobility. He then made it a focus of his weekly White House radio address, while the Council of Economic Advisers put out a state-by-state report on the impact a lapse would bring. When the budget deal ultimately came out without unemployment insurance in it, the administration called for it to be considered outside of that package.
Levin and Van Hollen proposed a three-month extension that is unpaid for, though aides said they could decide to slash agriculture subsidies as a way to cover the cost. Valerie Jarrett, the president’s closest adviser, endorsed the Levin-Van Hollen proposal. But Boehner felt no concrete pressure to bring it to a vote after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) publicly stated that the issue would have to betackled in the next calendar year — a pronouncement that caught some Democratic aides by surprise.
Reid’s office did not return a request for comment.
The party is now putting its hopes for extending the benefits on local political pressure. Democrats are betting that over the holiday break, enough Republican members of the House of Representatives will hear from angry constituents that they’ll push Boehner into finding a piece of legislation he can support. It’s a long-shot strategy. But aides say they’ve been buoyed by the press coverage the issue has received outside the Beltway.
Reid, meanwhile, has set up a procedural vote on the three-month extension for Jan. 6.
“Leader Reid has said that he will bring up the bipartisan legislative proposal in the Senate as soon as they return and we are hopeful it will pass,” said Brundage. “We urge the House leadership to allow a vote and stop obstructing a common sense proposal that would help Americans across the country and our economy.”