Despite the improved short-term unemployment situation in the July jobs report and decrease in unemployment benefits applications Democrats in Congress still widely support extending unemployment benefits. In order to pressure Republicans to vote on the unemployment benefits extension Rep. Sander Levin, D-MI the Ranking Democratic Member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives and the Center for Effective Government organized Witness Wednesdays featuring personal anecdotes and stories from the country's long-term unemployed.
"Witness Wednesdays: Voices of the Unemployed" launched on Wednesday, June 11, 2013 and took place for seven weeks on Wednesdays in June and July at the House Triangle on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. House Democrats regularly appeared at the weekly events reading the stories that were sent on how losing benefits from the EUC program has affected the economic situation of the long-term unemployed. The program was meant to put a personal face and show the repercussions of Republicans' stubbornness for not voting on either the bipartisan Senate or House authored unemployment benefits extension bills.
Senators Jack Reed, D-RI and Dean Heller, R-NV co-authored and co-sponsored the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014. The bill passed in the senate in April, but the Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH failed to put the bill to a vote prior to its June 1, 2014 deadline, because it did not include job creation measures. On Tuesday, June 24, 2014 they unveiled a new bill, extending benefits for five months without a deadline and the retroactive element included in the first bill, but there is still no job creation measures. The House also introduced its own bipartisan unemployment extension bill co-authored and sponsored by Representatives Frank LoBiondo, R-NJ-02 and Dan Kildee, D-MI-05 and introduced on Wednesday afternoon, June 25, 2014. There has been no action in the House or Senate on either bill prior to the August Congressional recess.
Despite the fact that the majority of people whose stories where featured could not attend, House Democrats would read their submitted stories. Among those that regularly attended was Levin, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-MD, and Rep. Dan Kildee, D-MI who co-sponsored the House's benefits extension bill. The fifth and last "Witness Wednesday event was held on July 30. In that last event House Democrats attacked the Republican House leadership for not put the benefits extension to a vote.
At the last press-conference Minority Whip Hoyer's sharp criticism claimed the benefits extension would pass the House if it had and would put to a vote. Hoyer, stated; "In that House there is a majority of members who would vote for an extension of unemployment insurance, but the obstructionism is that they will not bring it to the floor. This is simply reprehensible." Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT also attacked the Republicans at the last "press conference", saying; "The Republican majority says suffer some more, families, you deserve it. Stop fiddling while Rome burns, while these folks have nowhere to go."
Levin wrote an op-ed piece published in the Huffington Post right after the last Witness Wednesday on Thursday, July 31. The article entitled "As Republicans head home for recess, millions of unemployed are left behind" it shed light on the personal stories, blamed the Republicans all while proclaiming Democratic support for the legislation. Levin described the weekly press conferences, saying; "This week, we held the last of those Witness Wednesday events to raise awareness of the hardships that Americans are enduring and to urge Congress to act."
Rep. Levin pointed the discrepancy between the short-term and long-term employment rates that are being overlooked; "The economy continues to recover, but the rate of unemployed who have been out of work for longer than six months remains near record levels. Never before has Congress allowed an emergency unemployment insurance program to expire with the rate of long-term unemployed as high as it is today." Levin also indicated that not only does the employment benefits extension have support from Congressional Democrats the American public supports it; "By wide margins, Americans favor extending the program. Still, Republicans continue to block a single vote in the House."
Levin concluded; "The fight to renew unemployment insurance has always been about those who are most affected. This is about the forgotten Americans struggling just to make ends meet. Hundreds of people like Josephine have contacted my office to share their heart-breaking stories and ask for support from Congress. We hear them, we stand with them, and we urge House Republicans to end their resistance to an extension."
Earlier in the beginning of July, Rep. Kildee wrote a letter to new Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-CA to discuss the unemployment benefits extension and ask him to put the bill to a vote. In the letter Kildee wrote; "We have all seen that this body can do great things when we come together and work towards a common goal. It is within all of our interests and our country's economic interest that we come together now and work on finding a responsible and real solution to this problem. We urge you to seize this opportunity as the new Majority Leader to set a new tone in Congress and show that this body can still accomplish great things and tackle the toughest issues when we work together."
Kildee speaking in an interview with The Flint Journal thinks that the benefits extension is not a partisan issue, and the Republicans should not be against the bill, additionally there are Republicans in the House who support the extension. "I think there's been some movement within the Republicans on this, so we have done this as a bipartisan bill. We introduced this with four Democrats and four Republicans. The goal is this: Let's not make this a partisan political question. ... That's really the most significant thing."
Kildee's request went nowhere, and he entirely blamed the GOP House leadership for the extension not passing; "There is one thing that stands in the way of passing a federal unemployment extension… and that's the Republican leadership in the House. If this Congress has time… to pass half a trillion in tax extenders that are not paid for, we can help out these workers." Kildee also stated that; "The speaker himself needs to realize that he is the speaker of the House of Representatives, not the speaker of the Republican conference, And the House of Representatives would vote for an unpaid-for UI extension."
Kildee believes one of the biggest problems is mobilizing the American public to do as President Obama often advises write letters, call email your Congressional representative and pressure them as to the importance of passing the benefits extension. In a midterm election members of Congress and the Senate want to be reelected, they listen more to constituents because of the power of the vote. Kildee stated "People outside of Washington have to get engaged. We can't fix it alone."
- July 2014 Employment Situation Summary, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Aug. 1, 2014
- S. 2532: A bill to provide for the extension of certain unemployment benefits, June 25, 2015, Referred to Committee -- Full Text -- Video of Press Conference
- H.R. 4970: To provide for the extension of certain unemployment benefits, June 25, 2014, Referred to Committee
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. She covers US, Canadian & Israeli politics, with a particular focus on the Obama presidency, Congress, domestic policy, and elections.