There is a good chance that because of congressional inaction, the $600 per week additional unemployment benefit that’s been in place throughout the pandemic-induced recession will expire at the end of this month, if not sooner (for technical reasons, the last benefit checks go out July 25).

To label this as political malpractice is way too polite. I’d argue it’s one of the most egregious examples of dysfunctional, destructive politics in an era when such examples abound. It will hurt the most economically vulnerable people at a time when, even with recent gains, the number of job seekers exceeds jobs by a wide margin. More than 30 million people are receiving unemployment benefits right now, and this problem of oversupplied, under-demanded labor is getting worse, not better. Because the coronavirus is spreading at a newly accelerated rate, leading to yet another round of retrenched commerce, employment gains appear to be shifting into reverse.

Ending the higher benefits will also hurt the overall economy, and in a big way. On an annualized basis, the loss of the $600 plus up would leave a hole of more than $800 billion, almost 4 percent of GDP in an economy that’s struggling to reopen.

But really, to blame “congressional inaction” for this potential debacle is far too vague. As Politico put it, the benefits expire “if lawmakers follow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s proposed timeline for the next round of pandemic aid.” This timeline is completely inconsistent with comments McConnell, R-Ky., made a few weeks back, when he touted a wait-and-see attitude as to whether another relief package would be warranted. It would take some time, he cautioned, to “see what’s working, see what isn’t.”

Well, we’ve waited, and we’ve seen: The virus is spreading faster than ever, and that’s posing a serious threat to the recovery. The rationale for sustained unemployment insurance (UI) benefits remains strong, a fact with which McConnell himself appears to agree. Earlier this week, he told reporters, “When my members come back next week, we’ll start socializing [UI plans] with them.”

Sorry, but the time for socializing has long passed. The only explanations for the lapse are lethargy, dysfunction and a checked-out cluelessness as to what most people are going through right now – perfectly in keeping with the Trump White House’s “find something new!” campaign, which tells the unemployed to just get out there, get a new skill and find an exciting new job (they neglect to mention that the unemployment rate, at 11.1 percent, is still higher than the worst month of the last recession).

I understand that Republicans want to consider alternatives to the expiring $600 weekly plus-up. The Post reported this week that “with the benefits soon set to expire and the economy showing new signs of strain,” the Trump administration was open to some version of another expansion, though at a lower level than the current $600 a week, as they worry that that amount will incentivize workers to reject jobs at lower incomes.

That’s a reasonable debate to have, though again, the problem facing job seekers isn’t too much UI; it’s not enough jobs. Work disincentives are only binding when there’s work.

But what’s not reasonable is to be having this debate when benefits are lapsing. Ever since the UI plus-up was passed as part of the Cares Act in late March, the July deadline was etched in stone. With the pandemic re-spiking, a complete national leadership vacuum on virus control, the economy sort of opening and now sort of closing again, the open question of what’s happening with schools and the absence of child-care options if schools fail to restart fully, people are already suffering tremendous uncertainty and insecurity.

For congressional Republicans to pile on by letting crucially important benefits expire – even for a few weeks while they “socialize” their way toward some solution – is completely unacceptable. They need to stop messing around, grasp the urgency of the moment and fix this before July 25.

 


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