It was a branding moment. With their lock-step vote against extending unemployment benefits, the Republicans are indelibly marked as not only heartless but also frivolous in their much-professed concern over the soaring national debt. Thanks to the defection of the two relatively enlightened Republican senators from Maine and the quick replacement of the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, unemployment checks that had been stalled for millions of American families since early June will soon resume. But for Republicans, it has been a defining issue that will haunt the party.
There is plenty to criticize in the Democrats' handling of this economic crisis, mostly cribbed from the GOP playbook, but once again the Republicans seem determined to prove that when it comes to social compassion, they are the worst. How can they defend having supported Republican President George W. Bush giving $180 billion to AIG but draw the line when a Democratic president seeks to spend one-fifth of that amount helping millions of victims of the crisis that AIG was so instrumental in causing?
While holding unemployment checks hostage to demands for compensating budget cuts, Republican leaders claimed to support the extension of benefits. They rejected the argument of some on the harder ideological right that the average payment of $309 per week is the lucrative prize that keeps the unemployed from going back to work. They also conceded the obvious, that money given to the unemployed will stimulate the economy at a high multiplier effect because it is money that will be spent rather than hoarded.
Clearly the unemployed are far more likely to spend the money they receive than would the recipients of tax cuts for the rich that the GOP leadership so blithely recommends. And as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., was able to crow, while the Republicans demand a cut in spending to cover the costs of unemployment insurance, they make no such demand for their tax-cut proposal: "Our Republican colleagues say, `No, you have got to pay for that, but you don't have to pay for a tax cut for the wealthiest people in America' which is about 20 times as much as the unemployment insurance."
Their excuse for separating 2.5 million families from the checks needed to keep food on the table and cover the rent is that the GOP leadership wanted to send a message, in the words of the third-ranking Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, that the "federal debt has grown to an alarming level, where it is threatening the future of our children and grandchildren."
Odd as it sounds, the $34 billion cost of the program to cover the unemployed who have exhausted their 26 weeks of payments is chump change in an overall budget of $3.7 trillion. When stacked against the serious drivers of the debt, including a $700 billion military budget and a financial bailout that has cost trillions in taxpayer debt without a murmur of opposition from the GOP leadership, stonewalling on this particular issue is absurd. It would have shocked even Richard Nixon, who as president advocated a guaranteed minimum income for all Americans, and not just those who have been thrown out of work through no fault of their own.
Few, even in the GOP leadership, would deny that the 8 million who lost their jobs due to the banking debacle were the innocent victims of reckless banking policies. "There is no debate in the Senate about whether we should pass a bill-everyone agrees that we should," stated Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "What we do not support-and we make no apologies for-is borrowing tens of billions of dollars to pass this bill at a time when the national debt is spinning completely out of control."
Why no apologies for drawing the line at the expense of the victims but not when it came to bailing out the victimizers? Clearly the unemployed are the victims of forces far beyond their own control, beginning with a housing market wrecked by the Ponzi scheme of securitized mortgage debt made legal through financial deregulation that virtually all Republicans, and too many Democrats, long supported. Why is it acceptable for our government through the Federal Reserve to have bought up $1.2 trillion of those toxic debt obligations in a handout to the bankers who devised and sold them but balk at committing a tiny fraction of that spending to helping those thrown out of work?
That is the nub of it, and once again folks with a social conscience are left with a failed two-party system in which the Democrats, with much responsibility for this banking mess, must at worst be judged the lesser evil.