Bunning and Co. Jerk American Workers Around

At the end of last week, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) and the Senate Republican caucus decided to take a stand on government spending by demanding that Congress offset an important tax extenders bill. The bill, which, among other things, sought to extend eligibility for unemployment benefits, COBRA premium assistance, a Medicare doctors' fix, and highway funding, failed to pass because of the GOP's intransigence. While offsetting spending is a sensible policy, this was hardly the appropriate moment to make a point on the issue, as blockage of the extension bill will likely have serious consequences for both jobless Americans and our weak, recovering economy.

The Puppet Master

Created through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), four tiers of federal unemployment benefits currently cushion out-of-work Americans that have exhausted their state unemployment insurance. The filing deadline for these federal benefits expired yesterday. It now seems that the Senate is going to try to pass a longer extension of eligibility for these benefits in a new jobs bill, but this, of course, will take time. While senators debate this next bill, some 400,000 jobless Americans will lose their unemployment insurance over the next two weeks, according to the Department of Labor.

Failure to pass the extension also forced the Department of Transportation to furlough nearly 2,000 federal inspectors today because the government ran out of money to pay them. As a result, a number of highway construction projects have gone on hiatus, stranding some 90,000 construction workers employed on those projects. Additionally, physicians that see patients on Medicare will, beginning today, see benefits reduced by 21 percent, and jobless Americans that rely on COBRA to provide their health care coverage will lose a 65 percent subsidy to help pay for the insurance.

Fallout within the wider economy from Sen. Bunning and the GOP's blockage of this extension could be serious. Just the loss of unemployment benefits to jobless Americans – who generate $1.90 in gross domestic product for every dollar of unemployment insurance spent – might send a significant shock through the nation's recovering economy. Add to that the loss of health coverage for the unemployed and the stalling of federal construction projects around the country and the effects multiply.

Standing on the floor of the Senate, Sen. Bunning tried to defend his actions by arguing that if senators couldn't find $10 billion to pay for the extension bill, "we will never pay for anything," and that the debt we currently face is "unsustainable." Neither of these statements hold up to scrutiny.

The Senate just instituted new pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) rules that, while not as robust as earlier statutory rules, require the upper chamber to offset future spending increases or tax cuts with corresponding spending cuts or revenue increases. Given Bunning's argument about offseting, one would assume that he was a supporter of PAYGO. One would be wrong, though. Bunning voted against the very law that he now vehemently supports. Moreover, what does the unsustainability of our long-term deficits have to do with a short-term $10 billion unemployment insurance extension? If Sen. Bunning is interested in finding a spending cause célèbre, he should look into decrying extension of the Bush Tax Cuts or Medicare Part D, which will add tens of trillions of dollars to our debt.

The bottom line is that the actions of Sen. Bunning, which the Senate GOP leadership have de facto supported and are continuing unabated, are indefensible. With unemployment benefits for millions of American workers hanging in the balance, this was hardly an appropriate moment to take a moral stand on federal spending.

Image by Flickr user Der Henk used under a Creative Commons license.

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