The real reason the House of Representatives will not pass the unemployment benefits extension bill has to do with politics, but not partisanship, the politics of presidential leadership. President Barack Obama's laid back approach has led to failures of many of his important legislation in his policy agenda, including recent Senate failures to move beyond the filibuster stage for raising the minimum wage, pay equity, and just this past week energy efficiency. The president uses these failures as midterm campaign material, where he and the Democrats have spun it around to seem like the Democrats are the compassionate ones, while Republicans are solely concerned with the wealthy and corporate America. Instead of perpetually campaigning President Obama should actively work with Congress to get the unemployment benefits extension passed.
The Senate passed the unemployment benefits extension bill on April 7, 2014 and time is running out. The Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014 would have retroactively extended the Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) program for five months until June 1, 2014 helping the nearly three million Americans who rely on them, but the bill needs to be passed by the House before the end of May deadline. The EUC program expired on Dec. 28, 2013 after being instituted for five years since the economic collapse started in 2008, when President George W. Bush was still in office. Each week it is expired 70,000 Americans lose benefits, by the end of the year 1.6 million more Americans will lose benefits.
President Obama routinely stays out of negotiating with Congress despite Speaker of the House John Boehner's, R-OH pleas to negotiate with the president on a variety of issues. With the unemployment benefits extension Boehner has repeatedly asked the White House for a list of acceptable job creation measures to include and add as provisions to the unemployment bill that would make it more appealing to the House Republicans, especially the conservative ones that have been balking the most. What does Boehner get for a response, an indirect one from Press Secretary Jay Carney, and another, a letter from Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.
During his daily briefing on Monday, April 21, 2014 White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced that President Obama will not negotiate any concessions on the unemployment benefits bill. Carney stated in response to a press question that "we continue to press Congress to take action to restore those benefits." In usual Obama administration fashion, Carney insulted the Republicans, implying they are not serious about passing the bill with added provisions, responding; "I just don't have an update. What we've seen in the past in these kinds of situations generally are an attempt to throw spaghetti against the wall on sort of ideological things that have nothing to do with making sure that these benefits get to the people who need them."
The second response was from Secretary of Labor Perez, who sent a letter to Speaker Boehner on Wednesday, May 7, 2014 urging the speaker to put the unemployment benefits extension bill to a vote. The secretary looked to allay concerns and reservations Boehner has mentioned he has regarding passing and implementing the unemployment benefits extension bill. Additionally, the labor secretary included a list of suggested job creation measures that could be added to the bill, just as Boehner had been requesting from the White House.
However, the job creation provisions Perez suggested were almost entirely Democratic initiatives on the top of Obama's agenda, which are not Republican priorities. Peres suggested; "For example, we are eager to work on bipartisan legislation to fix our immigration system, simplify the tax code for businesses, support transportation reauthorization, and modernize our skills and job training programs." Republicans have expressed interest in one of Perez's suggestions on job training programs.
A Congressional aide for Speaker Boehner responded as to what the Boehner thought of Secretary Perez's letter; "Secretary Perez' 'offer' was basically, 'Hey, enact the whole White House domestic agenda - including UI, comprehensive immigration, and the President's version of tax reform - and we'll call it a "deal" - OK?' It was completely unserious. Boehner has been clear since before Christmas about what we would need to see from the White House - and they are just not acting."
As for President Obama, where is he? Obama believes his policy of bullying and criticizing Congressional Republicans in his speeches is enough to get the legislation he wants pushed through Congress. In the month since the Senate passed the unemployment benefits extension, only April 7, 2014 President Obama has only publicly commented on the bill three times, all briefly in the form of sharp criticism, and once by mocking the GOP, neither approach was productive.
The president first brought up the unemployment benefits extension bill briefly on Wednesday afternoon, April 30, 2014 during the speech he delivered on the failed Senate minimum wage vote. In a blistering midterm campaign styled speech President Obama was criticizing the GOP for not only blocking the advancement of the Senate minimum wage raise bill, but opposing and preventing any legislation that would help America's lower income and middle class. Obama advised American voters that "while you're at it, tell them to restore unemployment insurance for Americans who are trying to support their families right now while they look for work." The president urging the House GOP to pass the unemployment benefits extension, declaring; "Extending this lifeline of unemployment insurance would actually strengthen the economy and create jobs, and give millions of Americans across the country a sense of hope."
President Obama commented publically on the unemployment benefits extension two times on Saturday, May 3, 2014. In the morning when his weekly address entitled "The President's Year of Action" was released about the executive actions his has taken when Congress has failed to pass important economic legislation. President Obama listed and criticized all the bills the House and Senate Republicans have either blocked or failed to pass, including highlighting the House Republicans refusing to pass the Senate's unemployment benefits extension bill. Obama pointed out; "But so far this year, Republicans in Congress have blocked or voted down every serious idea to create jobs and strengthen the middle class. They've said "no" to raising the minimum wage, "no" to equal pay for equal work, and "no" to restoring the unemployment insurance they let expire for more than two million Americans looking for a new job."
The president than later in the evening delivered a speech at the 100th White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, where he heavily criticized the Republicans for not passing the Senate pass unemployment benefits extension bill. Obama jokingly remarked about the inability to pass legislation; "Washington seems more dysfunctional than ever. Gridlock has gotten so bad in this town you have to wonder." For President Obama nothing represents the partisan divide and the inability to pass important legislation better the House Republicans not putting unemployment benefits extension bill to a vote. Obama recounted; "One issue, for example, we haven't been able to agree on is unemployment insurance. Republicans continue to refuse to extend it." However, President Obama admitted; "I have not given up the idea of working with Congress," than he should actively follow through.
President Obama then laughed at the reason the GOP usually uses in refusing to help nearly three million Americans; they believe the long-term jobless would prefer to live off the government if given the extended benefits rather get a job. Continuing Obama mocked that it is Congress that represents living off the government; "And you know what, I am beginning to think they've got a point. If you want to get paid while not working, you should have to run for Congress just like everybody else."
President Obama needs to take an active role in the negotiations, speak directly with Speaker Boehner. Congressional Quarterly's Roll Call published an article on Wednesday, May 14, 2014 entitled "Will Obama Call Boehner on Unemployment Extension?" The article asks, "Will President Barack Obama pick up his vaunted phone and call Speaker John A. Boehner to try and cut a deal on an unemployment extension" Obama prefers to criticize, never reaching out to negotiate, it is always his way and no other way, which is why he chooses not to negotiate. It is a problem that is not special or unique to the unemployment benefits extension bill extending to all his domestic policy and even into foreign policy.
President Obama promised in his State of the Union address that he will use his phone and pen to institute economic measures that would help the middle class. The president has used his pen to sign over 20 executive orders or memorandums, but he does not use the phone, and he has not used it throughout his presidency. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA this past March accused Obama of an imperial presidency, historian Arthur Schlesinger's term for presidential overreach . Cantor used the term, because of the executive orders Obama pushed through, when constitutionally it is Congress' jurisdiction to pass legislation.
Obama's presidency however, is less of an imperial presidency and more of a monarchial presidency, making decrees from his throne in the White House, but not actively involved in the everyday ruling. President Obama prefers the non-confrontational approach of delivering blistering critical speeches. Obama believes that through speeches urging Congress to act and shaming them if they decide not to would lead to action for his agenda. That has been the wrong approach the whole time he has been president and there has been nothing accomplished in the three years the GOP has controlled the House and nothing will continue to be unless Obama learns the power of negotiating and compromise by using the strong arm of the presidency.
The country is blaming the Speaker of the House too much, while he controls which legislation is voted on in the House, recent comments by Boehner regarding the GOP conference and immigration reform shows the speaker does not have that much control of the House Republicans as he would want to work on the legislation he deems important either. Obama is the president, the president has the power and influence to bend Congress to pass the legislation that is a priority to him, but Obama chooses not to actively use his influence with Congress.
President Obama recently delivered the keynote address on April 10, 2014 at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library's three-day Civil Rights Summit honoring that pivotal legislation's 50th anniversary and the president who took a moment in time and changed America. Johnson used his skills as the "Master of the Senate" to push through legislation that would end up changing the South's electoral map from blue to red. As Obama observed; "This was President Johnson's genius. As a master of politics and the legislative process, he grasped like few others the power of government to bring about change.'" Working with the 89th Congress, Johnson passed the majority of legislation that would compromise his civil rights and war on poverty legacy.
Johnson used his experience as the Senate majority leader and melded the presidency with Congress like no other president since to a point where, as he explained; "If it's going to work, the relationship between the president and Congress has got to be almost incestuous." (Genovese, p, 157) Johnson was the creator of the modern imperial presidency, wielding his power to accomplish his agenda. Where he lobbied in stages as he recounted; "I pleaded, I reasoned, I argued, I urged, I warned." (Genovese, p. 157) Johnson knew all the buttons to push to get the legislation he wanted passed. His former Press Secretary George Reedy said it best in 1982 "Of all his qualities, however, the most important was that he knew how to make our form of government work. That is an art that has been lost since his passing and we are suffering heavily as a result." (Genovese, p. 158)
President Obama needs to learn from Johnson, and acquire the negotiation skills to get Congress to pass difficult legislation. If President Obama truly wants the EUC program extended for the nearly three million Americans he claims he is working for, the lower income and middle class he would phone Boehner, but the campaigner in chief seems more interested in a midterm elections tagline and slogan rather than actually governing and getting the job done.
H.R. 4550: Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014, May 1, 2014, Referred to Committee
- S. 2148: Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014, March 13, 2014, Reported by Committee
S. 2149: Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014, March 24, 2014, Reported by Committee
- H.R. 3979: Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2014, Jan 31, 2014, Passed Senate with Changes
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. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.