In War on Vaccines, GOP Turns to Unemployment Benefits

In War on Vaccines, GOP Turns to Unemployment Benefits

DC: U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court
Graeme Sloan
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Thursday, February 3, 2022
Happy Thursday! Or not so happy for Facebook and shareholders in its parent company, Meta, which saw the worst one-day crash in stock market history, wiping out $251 billion in value. Here’s what else is happening as we await another massive winter storm.

Congress Prepares for Shutdown Fallback

Congress is heading for its third stopgap spending bill for the fiscal year that started just over four months ago.

Facing a February 18 deadline to extend government funding and prevent a government shutdown, congressional appropriators had reportedly hoped to make some progress this week toward an agreement on a spending package for the rest of the fiscal year that began in October. But negotiations on the long-delayed funding bill have been slow, with Democrats and Republicans still divided over key issues.

“We haven’t resolved anything yet,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations panel, told reporters Thursday.

The two sides haven’t yet settled on topline spending levels, as Democrats push for a larger increase in non-defense spending while Republicans continue to insist on “parity,” or equal-sized increases for the defense and non-defense portions of the budget.

“Right now, we are going back and forth with offers between the Democrats and Republicans and we're hoping to reach a deal on a topline very soon on that,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said at her weekly press conference Thursday.

Roll Call’s Lindsey McPherson reports that Republicans on Wednesday proposed a larger boost to the defense budget than 5% increase approved on a bipartisan basis in the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which would put total Pentagon and security spending at $778 billion.

Another stopgap: There’s no deal on topline spending numbers at hand. “Am I optimistic? Probably not at this point,” Shelby told reporters. “But I’m not glum. Not yet.”

Without an agreement, and with the February 18 deadline approaching, lawmakers will almost certainly need to fall back on another stopgap extension, known as a continuing resolution. “Even if appropriators could reach a deal on defense and nondefense toplines in the next few days, they would still need time to hammer out spending levels for the individual 12 bills and all the policy details under them,” McPherson writes. “That’s a massive task that would be difficult to negotiate in less than two weeks, let alone draft finalized text for and pass through both chambers.”

The question is how long that stopgap measure will last — and the answer will depend on how much progress appropriators can make in the coming days.

The bottom line: Each side has reason to want to reach a deal. While the prospect of a full-year continuing resolution extending funding at fiscal 2021 levels holds some appeal for Republicans, many also want to provide the Pentagon with a funding increase and the flexibility that would come with new appropriations. Democrats, meanwhile, are eager to fund their agenda and show some progress. Much of the spending authorized under last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, for example, requires lawmakers to pass the annual spending package. And Democrats are pushing for additional pandemic relief funding, which may be unlikely without a larger agreement.

GOP Lawmakers Use Unemployment Benefits in War on Vaccines

A new report from the left-leaning Century Foundation explores how conservatives in some states are turning to the unemployment system to reward workers who quit their jobs after refusing to obey vaccine mandates.

Although there is some variation in how the rules are applied, workers who quit their jobs typically are ineligible for unemployment benefits. In addition, refusal to comply with an employer’s reasonable requirement is tantamount to misconduct, which is a legitimate cause for firing, and workers fired for cause don’t usually qualify for benefits.

But as part of the Republican Party’s war on both private and public mandates — shaped in part by a suspicion of vaccines among many Republican voters — some GOP-led states are changing the rules to allow vaccine refusers to collect unemployment benefits. Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have all passed new laws along those lines, and Nebraska has done so through policy guidance. Another 15 states are considering such legislation.

Ironically, many of these states sought to cut off unemployment benefits early last summer, ending federal programs that provided enhanced and extended benefits during the pandemic. “These states withdrew support for individuals suffering unemployment directly because of COVID-19, but now suddenly want to provide UI benefits to those who were fired or had to quit because they voluntarily choose to increase the chance of infection for themselves and their coworkers,” the report says.

Writing in November about the situation, The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell savored the irony. “All spring and summer, Republicans cried bloody murder about how too-generous unemployment benefits were supposedly discouraging Americans from returning to work,” she wrote. “Expanded jobless benefits were creating welfare queens, they argued, and driving labor shortages and hurting small businesses.”

Now, some red states are happy to reward a refusal to work, as long as it’s in the name of vaccine resistance. The benefits of such rewards, however, are difficult to determine. “[T]he policies being enacted seem, at least at this point, about sending a political message rather than delivering additional benefits to large numbers of residents,” the Century Foundation report says. “Sadly, though, in endorsing vaccine refusal, these policies also undermine public health and work toward making the pandemic all that much more lethal.”

Quote of the Day: What Manchin Wants

“That’s music to my ears. Deficit reduction, inflation, being fiscally responsible — sounds like something we should be talking about!”

– Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), whose objections to Democrats’ Build Back Better Act have derailed the bill, in an interview with NBC News, on discussions in his party on adding deficit-reduction measures to a new version of their legislation in order to attract his support. Manchin told NBC that his priority for the bill is to “fix the tax code” and he supports clean energy measures and some proposals to expand health care coverage. But some of Manchin’s tax ideas could run into resistance from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), who scuttled proposed tax rate hikes in an earlier plan.

Chart of the Day: Closer to Normal

New jobless claims fell to a seasonally adjusted 238,000 last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, boosting confidence that the omicron variant of Covid-19 and the economic drag it created is in rapid decline. The report “tells us that the hit to the labor market from the Omicron variant is short-lived,” said Gus Faucher, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group. “Even if we do see job losses in January we should expect to see job gains return in February.”

Economist Tuan Nguyen of the consulting firm RSM said the current trend suggests that the unemployment benefits data will soon return to pre-pandemic levels. “Not a surprise as omicron crests, new filings for jobless benefits dropped in the last 2 weeks of Jan,” Nguyen tweeted. “We will likely reach 2019 level this week.”

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