By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — To 1.3 million jobless Americans: The Republican Party wishes you a Very Unhappy New Year!
It would be one thing if there were a logical reason to cut off unemployment benefits for those who have been out of work the longest. But no such rationale exists. On both economic and moral grounds, extending benefits for the long-term unemployed should have been an automatic bipartisan vote in both houses of Congress.
It wasn’t. Nothing is automatic and bipartisan anymore, not with today’s radicalized GOP on the scene. In this case, a sensible and humane policy option is hostage to bruised Republican egos and the ideological myth of “makers” versus “takers.”
The result is a cruel blow to families that are already suffering. On Saturday, benefits were allowed to expire for 1.3 million people who have been unemployed more than six months. These are precisely the jobless who will suffer most from a cutoff, since they have been scraping by on unemployment checks for so long that their financial situations are already precarious, if not dire.
Extending unemployment benefits is something that’s normally done in a recession, and Republicans correctly point out that we are now in a recovery. But there was nothing normal about the Great Recession, and there is nothing normal about the Not-So-Great Recovery.
We are emerging from the worst economic slump since the Depression, and growth has been unusually — and painfully — slow. Only in the past few months has the economy shown real signs of life. Job growth is improving but still sluggish, with unemployment hovering at 7 percent — not counting the millions of Americans who have given up looking for work.
An extension of long-term unemployment benefits should have been part of the budget deal between Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., but wasn’t. Democrats tried to offer an amendment that would extend the benefits for three months, and they identified savings elsewhere in the budget to pay for it. But House Speaker John Boehner refused to allow a vote on the proposal.
In terms of economic policy, this makes no sense. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that extending long-term unemployment for a full year would cost about $25 billion, which would add to the deficit. But the measure would boost economic growth by two-tenths of 1 percent and create 200,000 jobs. Given that interest rates are at historical lows, and given that the imperative right now is to create growth and jobs, refusing to extend the benefits is counterproductive as well as cruel.
Sadly, cruelty is the point.
The Republican far right perceived the budget deal as a political defeat — even though it caps spending for social programs at levels that many Democrats consider appallingly low — because it does not slash Medicare and Social Security. For some in the GOP, accepting an unemployment extension would have been too much to swallow, simply because it was favored by Democrats.
For some other Republicans, unemployment isn’t really about spending, growth, deficits or even politics. They see it as a moral issue.
To this way of thinking, extended benefits coddle the unemployed and encourage them to loll around the house, presumably eating bonbons, rather than pound the streets for any crumbs of work they can find, however meager.
This view is consistent with the philosophy that Mitt Romney privately espoused during his failed presidential campaign. It sees a growing number of Americans as parasitic “takers” who luxuriate in their dependence on government benefits — 47 percent was the figure Romney came up with. The “makers” who create the nation’s wealth are not really helping the down-and-out by giving them financial support to make it through tough times, this philosophy holds. Much better medicine would be a kick in the pants.
I wonder if these Ayn Rand ideologues have ever actually met a breadwinner who has gone without a job for more than six months. I wonder if they know that some jobless men and women — and I know this is hard to believe — don’t have well-to-do parents or even a trust fund to fall back on. I wonder if they understand that unemployment benefits don’t even cover basic expenses, much less bonbons.
The Republican establishment doesn’t want this to be a campaign issue for Democrats, so it’s quite likely that the benefits will eventually be extended. Until then, more than a million households are being made to suffer privation and anxiety — for no good reason at all. Thanks for nothing, GOP.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.