It’s been about three weeks since congressional Republicans allowed federal unemployment benefits to lapse, to the detriment of about 1.3 million Americans. The more time passes, the larger the number of families affected, and the greater the negative impact on the U.S. economy.
Democrats, progressive activists, labor unions, and others haven’t quite given up on an extension. Late last week, as Jacob Fischler reported, “more than a dozen activists, organized by groups including the National Employment Law Project and AFL-CIO, carried two boxes filled with 60,000 petitions each, asking Congress to extend the benefits.” One box was for House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) office, the other for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office.
When they arrived at McConnell’s office, a few activists were permitted to enter and speak directly to the Minority Leader’s spokesperson, Don Stewart. A woman named Wessita McKinley spoke on behalf of the group.
“I’ve served my country, honorable discharge. I’ve done my time. I’ve done everything right,” she said. “College, school, no crime, no record. Pay my taxes. Make sure my daughter went to school.”
“Did the American dream. Got her in college,” McKinley added. “And I’m sitting here struggling. I’m now ready to take a street sweeper job if they would offer it to me. So I’m asking you the million dollar question. What am I supposed to do right now to keep a roof over my head, food in my stomach, clothes on my back, car insurance paid?”
This seems like a pretty reasonable question given the circumstances. Unfortunately, McConnell’s spokesperson didn’t have a great answer.
Stewart, the McConnell spokesman, countered by saying Majority Leader Harry Reid has not agreed to Republican amendments and waited too long to hold votes on the issue in the first place. But McKinley wasn’t satisfied with that answer as she continued to lament about her situation.
“I can only tell you what we can do here in the Senate,” Stewart said. “I have no control over your life.”
If this is the best McConnell’s office can do, the nation’s jobless have reason to be deeply concerned about their financial wellbeing.
As Stewart sees it, millions of struggling Americans should suffer because of a procedural dispute? McConnell wants to add amendments to a benefits bill that have nothing to do with the benefits bill, and since Democrats are balking, jobless aid must languish?
As for the notion senators have already waited too long, just the opposite is true. Congress could approve an extension at any time and it would make an immediate difference. On this, there’s no such thing as “too late” – policymakers even have the option of making the benefits retroactive to the Dec. 28 deadline.
But it’s the “I have no control over your life” line that really rankles. I can’t speak for the activists, obviously, but by all appearances, we’re talking about a group of people who are just looking for aid to help them keep their heads above water. McConnell has voted for these same benefits before, many times, even without offsetting cuts.
“I have no control over your life”? The unemployed deserve better.
Update: I talked this afternoon to Charly Norton, a spokesperson for Alison Lundergan Grimes’ (D) Senate campaign in Kentucky, who said: “First Mitch McConnell laughs in the faces of over 18,000 unemployed Kentuckians, then his top spokesman ridicules a woman struggling to make ends meet – all because he refuses to extend unemployment insurance benefits. Either McConnell doesn’t understand that being the ‘Guardian of Gridlock’ hurts real people or he simply doesn’t care. No wonder more and more Kentuckians believe that he should get out of the way and let Alison Lundergan Grimes fight for the hardworking, middle-class families of the Commonwealth. Unlike Mitch McConnell, Alison will be a champion for the people of Kentucky in the United States Senate.”