Floor Statement Urging Further Extension of Unemployment Benefits
Madam President, even though we have made an extraordinary advance in health care reform, we still have millions of Americans who are without jobs and in need of unemployment insurance. We are in a situation that requires action.
Early this month, we were able to pass a 30-day extension by a vote of 78 to 19. It was overwhelmingly adopted, but it was not quickly adopted because of the delay and the procedures imposed upon the process. We might in this Chamber understand the nuances of rules and procedures, but for the people who have been without work for up to a year or more, the nuances escape them. They need help. The reality is, on April 5 this extension will expire. We will not be in session, so we are here today to continue the work that we must do as Members of this Senate.
We have already passed in this body a year-long extension along with some other tax provisions--again, under the leadership of Chairman Baucus. That provision is over in the House, and it is unlikely to move today or tomorrow. The House sent us a provision for another 1-month extension. That is bottled up. But, again, all of these legislative initiatives do not put the check in the mail for those who are without work.
That is what we have to do. We have to pass another extension, at least to get us from April into next month and beyond. Of course, I think the year-long extension until the end of this calendar year is the right approach. It has already been adopted, and I hope we can return and embrace that proposal.
If we do not move, at a minimum, for a temporary extension, approximately 1,200 Rhode Islanders will start losing their benefits each week starting April 5. By the end of April, three-quarters of 1 million unemployed workers across the Nation will lose their benefits.
This is at a moment when we are beginning to see some economic traction, some reports of progress in labor markets. Just today it was reported that initial unemployment claims fell by 14,000--a number much larger than the experts expected. Now we are in a very difficult moment when we look at the good news being that the claims fell.'' But that is a prelude to the point we have to achieve: when not only the claims fall but the jobs start growing and growing and growing.
We have come a long ways since President Obama took office: 700,000 people a month who were losing their job--with huge, catastrophic, ramifications throughout the economy. That is beginning to turn around. But until we are back to a robust employment situation, we cannot ignore people who need help through the unemployment compensation system.
I believe the major point at this juncture between the two sides is the issue of how do we pay for this, its cost. We have adopted, as Democrats, what was ignored and then dismissed by Republicans, which is the concept of pay-go, of paying for government activities either by revenue increases or by offsetting reductions. But we have always understood that in emergencies these pay-go rules properly can be suspended; that we can go ahead and deal with an emergency.
Frankly, this situation we are in today, that is triggering all this concern--and rightfully so--of the deficit is not something that was created by President Obama. He walked in with a $1.3 trillion deficit--in sharp contrast to President George W. Bush, who walked into office with a $5.6 trillion surplus over 10 years. That was not the result of just the economy humming along, that was the result of very difficult choices that were made in this body and in the House of Representatives under the leadership of President Clinton and, once again, under the leadership of my colleagues such as Max Baucus.
But that surplus, that opportunity of a robust employment picture where unemployment was around 5 percent, that was the legacy of President Clinton. Frankly, the legacy of President Bush is significant deficits and significant unemployment and financial crisis. More debt was added in that administration--$3 trillion--than all previous administrations combined, from George Washington all the way up to George W. Bush.
So this deficit is a real problem. But a lot of it was the result of decisions that were made by that administration to finance activities not through pay-go but through just piling it on the deficit. Tax cuts were not paid for, and the tax cuts were skewed in the nature of a progressive tax to the wealthiest. Iraq, Afghanistan--none of those wars were paid for through offsets or anything else. The prescription drug program, Part D, was not paid for. It was, again, added to the tab of future generations. It is interesting, today we have actually tried to fix that with the passage of the health care bill by closing the doughnut hole.
So at this moment, when we face a true employment emergency, when people say: Well, we are now going to insist upon complete offsets, it misses what was done casually and repeatedly during the Bush administration for areas that you could argue were not true emergencies. Now we face a critical emergency. In my State of Rhode Island, we have a 12.7 percent unemployment rate. If we do not start supporting and turning that around, it will get worse rather than better. We have never in recent history--going over several decades--ever suspended emergency unemployment benefits when the unemployment rate was at least 7.4 percent or higher. We are at nearly 10 percent unemployment nationally, and in some States--again, in Rhode Island, it is close to 13 percent. Until we lower joblessness significantly, we are still in an employment emergency.
The other aspect of this, too, is unemployment compensation is one of the major activities for stimulating the economy. The bang for the buck is significant. There is $1.90 of economic activity for every $1 invested in unemployment insurance. It makes sense. People need the money to go to the store to buy food for their children. They need to pay for the gas to look for a job. That money will come in and be multiplied in the economy.
The irony, too, of trying to use, in some respects, the stimulus money to pay for the unemployment is it is basically taking away money we have designed to get the economy moving and spending it for a program that will also help the economy move. But you are going to get a lot less bang for the buck in terms of decreasing our overall commitment to that economic activity in the country.
So we have to move. I would urge an immediate extension of the unemployment compensation legislation to give us a chance to return and work with our colleagues in the House for the legislation that will at least guarantee an unemployment extension until the end of this calendar year. But we have to move. We have to act. We should do so now.
With that, I yield the floor.