Grassroots Action Key to Unemployment Insurance Fight
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The Fiscal Times
April 15, 2014

Activists and advocates for the jobless insist that the fight over an extension of federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed didn’t end last Thursday, when a Congressional recess sent lawmakers out of town until the end of the month. Advocates have vowed to put pressure on lawmakers as they visit their constituents in the next two weeks, but with every passing day, the struggles of the long-term unemployed become more difficult, and the likelihood of relief through legislation appears more remote. 

Here is the state of play: Last week, after three months of intense argument and debate, the Senate passed a bill that would supplement the roughly 26 weeks of state-level unemployment insurance with an additional five months of federal insurance. At this point, more than half of that extension would be retroactive to December 28, when Congress allowed the most recent extension of benefits to expire.

Related: Unemployment Insurance Bill Hits Political Snags

The sticking point is the leadership in the House of Representatives. Advocates believe that if the Senate bill were allowed to come to the House floor for a vote, it would pass with the support of the Democratic minority and a significant number of Republicans. However, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has indicated that he is not interested in allowing a vote on the Senate bill. 

Boehner says that the Senate bill does not do enough to create jobs, and has been adamant in his refusal to consider it. He has not, however, offered any legislation himself – or taken up at least one House Republican-sponsored measure to address the issue. The Republican bill, sponsored by Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, offers a much less generous extension of the benefit in exchange for multiple policy changes that Republicans insist would create jobs, but that Democrats find politically toxic, including approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and major changes to the Affordable Care Act.

In comments to reporters last week, Boehner said that now the responsibility lies with the White House, which, incidentally, cannot introduce legislation in Congress. President Obama needs to make him an acceptable offer, Boehner told reporters, but he would not say what job creation provisions would be acceptable to him. When pressed, he said, “You'll have to ask the administration. I made it clear what it would take for me to consider it. They've not had any suggestions."

Now, though, with the White House turning much of its attention to the twin issues of raising the minimum wage and pushing legislation to address the so-called “wage gap” between men and women, some who follow the issue closely on Capitol Hill worry that failure to get a deal done before the current recess will break whatever momentum existed, and that it will be hard to find traction when lawmakers return.

Related: The House Republican Fighting for Unemployment Insurance

An additional problem is that with every passing day, the Senate proposal becomes less and less attractive as an option. Had it passed last week, its five-month extension would have been more than 60 percent retroactive. If Congress were to pass it immediately on its return at the end of this month, it would be more like 80 percent retroactive. And with the rate of long-term unemployment still nearly double the size at which previous Congresses have allowed unemployment benefits extensions to expire, passing the Senate bill in April would only lead to a new fight over the same issue in May or June. 

With the Congress expected to act on only a small number of legislative proposals in the months leading up to the mid-term elections, Democrats’ hope of attaching the bill to some other piece of must-pass legislation are fading.

Still, activists and Democratic Hill staff say that they still hope to pressure House Republicans into allowing a vote.

It may depend, in large part, on what individual lawmakers are hearing from constituents on the ground in their districts during the two weeks recess. So far, House members say, the Republicans blocking the extension have felt little public pressure on the issue, and thus have faced little pushback for a failure to act.

Related: New Deadline Looms on Unemployment Insurance Extension

Senior staff on the Democratic side of the House of Representatives say that now that the Senate has approved a bipartisan bill, they have begun distributing county-level data on the plight of the long-term unemployed, meant to generate local press coverage of an issue that has, so far, mainly been covered on the national level.

Last week, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee circulated an email containing links to editorials from various local and regional newspapers calling for Congress to act on an extension. 

In addition, organizations supporting an extension are trying to organize an effort to reach lawmakers in their home districts.

“I’d be lying if I said that I thought we would have an easy time of it when Congress returns, but I’d also be lying if I said it was all but over,” said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project. “There are a lot of grassroots groups that are going to be spending these two recess weeks making sure their members know how important the UI program is to them.”

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A longtime reporter on the intersection of the federal government and the private sector, Rob Garver is National Correspondent, based in Washington, D.C. He has written for ProPublica, The New York Times and other publications.