Rep. Charlie Dent is puzzled. Back in January, the Pennsylvania Republican sponsored a bill that would renew an extension of federal unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed. But his proposal, which has the support of a handful of his fellow Republicans, has received no public support from House Leadership, and hasn’t even begun moving through the committee process.
What’s confusing is that House Speaker John Boehner said he would be willing to consider a bill to extend benefits, as long as it’s paid for and contains job creation measures. Dent’s proposal, the GROWTH Act meets both criteria. But contacted early this week, Boehner’s staff said that the Speaker has no position on the Dent proposal, and referred all further questions to the committee with jurisdiction over the bill. Dent’s bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.
“It does frustrate me. I proposed this in January,” Dent said in an interview. He added, “The Speaker has made comments consistent with what I’ve advocated.”
He said that he has brought up with bill with House leadership, including Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “They did not dismiss it out of hand,” he said. “I believe leadership is interested in my proposal. Whether they want to advance it is another question.”
After months of battling over the renewal of the program, which expired in December, the Senate is expected this week to finally pass a five-month extension, retroactive to December 28. Boehner has made it clear that the Senate proposal is not acceptable to House Republicans, but to this point has not offered an alternative.
“I suspect leadership is waiting to see if the Senate actually passes an unemployment bill,” said Dent. “I have been arguing for some time that rather than the House waiting for the senate to pass an [unemployment insurance] bill that we ought to be a little more proactive,” said Dent.
The problem Dent is trying to address is that with unemployment – particularly long-term unemployment – still at high levels, the federal program that has historically been used to provide relief to the jobless was allowed to expire.
The Emergency Unemployment Compensation program is designed to supplement state level benefits, which typically expire at about 26 weeks. During the worst of the recession, the program extended benefits to 99 weeks. It was later cut back to 73 before it expired. During past economic recoveries, Congress has routinely renewed the program while long-term unemployment remained above 1.3 percent. It is currently nearly twice that level, at 2.5 percent.
To be clear, while it renews the program through the end of the year, Dent’s proposal is far less generous than either the program that expired in December or the Senate proposal. The GROWTH (Generating Real Opportunities for Workers and Transitional Help) Act would extend unemployment benefits to just 40 weeks total, far less than the 73-week extension that was available in some states until December.
It’s also tied to a number of policy proposals that Democrats, in particular, won’t like, but that would be big wins for Republicans. Dent would repeal the Medical Device Tax that was passed as part of the Affordable Care Act and would require approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Both of these measures have been touted as major job creators by Republicans, though Democrats dispute their numbers. The bill also contains a job training program championed by Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).
“I will be the first to tell you that clearly there are many people who are unemployed who need assistance,” said Dent. “But I don’t think that transferring money from one group of taxpayers to another does much to help the economy. Extending unemployment benefits, by itself, does not grow the economy. That’s why the cosponsors and I have included these job creating measures.”
“We pay for it too,” he said. “We pay for the growth act by stopping the simultaneous collection of both unemployment insurance and disability benefits. We also require proof of Social Security numbers for claiming the child tax credit.”
In Dent’s view, the bill he’s introduced is exactly the sort of legislation that ought to get a hearing when such a contentious issue arises. Democrats opposed to some of the policy changes in the bill should “celebrate the unemployment insurance extension” and Republicans opposed to the extension, “should celebrate the policy changes.”
“That’s how compromise should work,” Dent said.
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