Transcript: Floor speech by Sen. Jack Reed on extending emergency unemployment compensation – Feb. 6, 2014

Partial transcript of Sen. Jack Reed’s (D-Rhode Island) speech on the Senate floor urging lawmakers to approve a three-month extension of the federal emergency unemployment compensation (EUC) on Feb. 6, 2014. S. 1845 failed with a vote of 55 to 43:

Mr. President, in a few hours, this Chamber will have the opportunity to restore benefits to 1.7 million American job seekers and help reduce the national deficit by $1.2 billion.

I believe my colleagues understand that this is a fiscally responsible way to help job seekers who are still struggling in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

UI help people to look for work while at the same time bolstering consumer demand and supporting the economy, which is why the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that renewing unemployment insurance for one year will save 200,000 jobs.

This is an imperative. We must do this.

We have the families who are struggling, on behalf of our economy that needs the support. This is something that must be done.

Now, the question is whether we can move this critical bill forward and send help to those who are struggling through no fault of their own.

Everyone understands that to qualify for unemployment insurance, you have to be working and you have to lose your job through no fault of your own, and that you have to continue to search for work.

And the reality is in this market, there are – in many cases – three applicants for every job.

And we’ve all heard the stories when we’ve gone home to our states.

The software engineer who’s worked for 20 years, who’s put out 300 resumes, who’s followed people around to give them resumes.

I heard a story of an individual who was so persistent to try to get a job in the financial services that he would show up early in the morning and put his resume in the local newspaper for the head of the bank he was interviewing with. And that eventually got him a call-back but not yet a job.

It’s very difficult. And we can do what we’ve always done – help these struggling Americans and help our economy.

At every point in this process, I believe we have responded to the issues raised by our colleagues to try to get this done.

Instead of a full year of extended unemployment benefits, which I proposed which we typically do, we compromised on a short-term extension in order to just to get it done.

Just to get it done because since Dec. 28th people have lost their benefits; they went off a cliff. Every week 60,000 more Americans lose their benefits. It’s up to 1.7 million Americans now. It will be several million before this year has run out.

So, instead of a typical one-year extension, we’re asking for three months. Most of it now, or a large part of it, being retroactive – make up to those people who lost their benefits beginning on Dec. 28th.

…I must thank him for his tremendous leadership by Senator Dean Heller of Nevada. This is a bipartisan effort. This is a bipartisan effort because this unemployment, particularly this long-term unemployment problem, knows no political dimension or geographic dimension or ethnic or gender dimension. It is an American problem, and we’re responding in a bipartisan way – Senator Heller and I.

And we put what we thought was a pathway to provide immediate aid to these job seekers and give us enough time to work through these complex issues that many of my agree. Issues about can we make the program overall more effective, can we incentivize individuals to seek more employment more efficiently, can we integrate training. All of those are important issues.

But in the context of the three-month emergency extension, the first thing to do is to get the relief to the people and then to sit down conscientiously and deliberately and work on the details.

When this concession wasn’t enough to break a filibuster, Democrats put forth another proposal – again – after consultation with our Republican colleagues. And I thank Senator Heller, Senator [Susan] Collins (R-Maine), Senator [Rob] Portman (R-Ohio), Senator Dan Coats (R-Indiana) and many others who consciously and conscientiously provided thoughts, provided input, et cetera.

This was not a my way or the highway. This was trying to find a bipartisan pathway, and we’re still searching.

So, based on those comments, we now propose a fully paid-for extension of unemployment insurance.

Then, we started off with 11.5 months fully paid-for. We used to pay for that would have been an extension of the mandatory saving agreed to in the bipartisan budget agreement, which had been endorsed by House Budget Chairman Congressman Paul Ryan. And we also included in that proposal the long-term proposal a major policy change proposed by Sen. Portman addressing overlapping unemployment and disability insurance payments.

None of these changes are very easy for us to accept on our side.

The tradition or the routine has to be unpaid-for unemployment extension. Very few times have we paid for these because they’re considered emergency spending. This is an emergency. People are struggling out there.

But, we accepted the premise that our Republican colleagues suggested that it has to be paid for. Then we accepted the premise also that we couldn’t pay for it by tax revenues, that we would have to pay for it by something else. And so we took a proposal that was embedded in the budget and we tried to use that together with a proposal that was first presented by Senator Paul Ryan.

But we had a vote on this another cloture vote and none of our Republican colleagues supported it.

Well, then we had a vote on the underlying measure – again, the short-term extension – the three-month extension paid-for by Senator Heller and I. And Senator Heller joined us on that vote and I thank him for that. But still not the significant number of Republican colleagues necessary not only to move this measure forward but also to do the right thing.

And we’re here today, Mr. President, we’ve had another round of extensive discussions and consultations, and we’re now about to pay for a three-month extension of the unemployment benefits – some of it retroactive – which is fully paid-for.

And I will point out it is February. This extension will go forward until March. We’re reaching the point, ironically, where we might have more retroactive payments than prospective payments. That’s why, again, we have to move, and we have to move today.

It’s not everything we wanted certainly. I mean, we would’ve – as I said initially, we would’ve preferred a full year. Give people certainty for the year. We would have, as we’ve done more times than not, declared emergency spending.

But in order to conscientiously and thoughtfully and cooperatively and collaboratively work with our colleagues, we have continually sort of agreed to make concessions. That, I used to think, was the nature of political compromise – principled political compromise. And we’ve tried.

So, now we have a three-month bill paid for by a technique called pension smoothing, which we have enacted on a bipartisan basis. In fact, the vote was 79 to 19 in the 2012 transportation bill…So this is not a controversial pay-for. This is something that we have embraced before. It is something that does not involve revenues, which is one of the benchmarks that our colleagues laid down.

So, we have a short-term fully paid-for UI benefit that can go out immediately to people who are suffering, that is paid for by a non-controversial mechanism. And essentially, it will do what I think we have been requested to do by our colleagues on this side. Now, our request is simply support us in this effort so that we can get this legislation accomplished.

One of the interesting thing about this pay-for is not only was it in the transportation bill and it’s due to expire and we’ll extend it, but also it’s been used on numerous occasions by colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pay for various assembly of different legislative proposals. So, this is not a controversial mechanism.

I don’t think UI is controversial. I think people hopefully recognize that it’s necessary in this situation.

We’ve also included a provision in this proposal that has been championed aggressively and thoughtfully by Senator [Tom] Coburn (R-Oklahoma) that will bar individuals with income over $1 million from receiving federal unemployment insurance benefits. It passed this House, I believe, this assembly, this chamber by a vote of 100 to 1 I think when it was brought up. That’s my recollection but I will defer to the record.

And then the other fact, which I would argue to my colleagues, is as we try to pay for this extension, we’re also able to accrue $1.2 billion over 10 years to reduce the deficit.

So, if my colleagues are looking for proposals that are fully paid-for, reduce the deficit, and provide needed assistance to Americans who have work and are looking for work and desperately want a job, we need their vote this afternoon.

So, I hope we can move forward on this bill, help unemployed Americans who are searching for work, help employers because this pension smoothing mechanism helps employers, and also reduce the deficit. That’s a pretty good trifecta – something I think we should support.

And the other point I want to make at this point is the notion that unemployment insurance – federal long-term benefits – should be a political issue is, I think, in stark contrast to history. Congress has renewed UI on a bipartisan basis in the past on numerous occasions. We did it three times under President Ronald Reagan. We did it five times under President George W. Bush. So I think that’s the precedent to get it done today. That’s pretty good precedent on a bipartisan basis under two Republican presidents.

But one of the questions comes up and it really does the Republican leadership – not some of the members who we’ve collaborated with very closely – but do they want this to pass? Or they say, “No, no, forget the substance. It’s so compelling. Let’s talk about process. This is about how many amendments we have. This is about whether or not we can reform and reauthorize an entire legislative program based on a three-month extension, most of which is becoming rapidly retroactive not proactive or pro- going forward.

I think the American people see through this. The substance is clear. This program has been repeatedly reauthorized to deal with long-term unemployment under Republican presidents, Democratic presidents, on a bipartisan basis. It is fully paid-for.

It is paid for by a non-controversial technique that does not include revenues. In fact, the pay-for is something that the corporate world supports.

There are others who might say, “Well, we’re disappointed because there’s another major issue out there” – and there is, and that’s the COLA [cost of living adjustments] for military retirees…that the issue of the COLA has to be dealt with. It will be dealt with. But I want to point out that COLA does not become effective – those reductions – until December of 2015. People receiving UI lost their benefits December of last year. They are already suffering. There is no more time for them in terms of “We can fix it before it takes effect.” We need to act today.

And indeed, it’s been estimated that this 20,000 veterans who have been denied long-term unemployment benefits because of our failure to extend them. So for those 20,000 veterans, I don’t think it’d be sufficient to tell them, “You’re not going to get your unemployment insurance because we’re worried about what’s going to happen in December 2015 to some other veterans.” If you want to help veterans right away today, you can help 20,000 of them by voting for this provision going forward.

So let’s just help both the unemployed and our veterans, and not try to use one group against the other, et cetera for a legislative advantage in terms of any one particular measure.

The emergency for unemployment insurance that encompasses at least 20,000 veterans is today, not a year or more from now.

We can’t turn our backs on the 1.7 million Americans and it’s growing each week. We’ve got to help them.

It’s been 40 days since unemployment insurance benefits expired, Mr. President, for millions of Americans. That’s 40 days too long for those who are downsized in the recession and now find their UI benefits being downsized again by Congress, downsized practically to zero.

But I’d also like to remind my colleagues about some of the reforms that we’ve already accomplished in 2012 because many of my colleagues have some very good ideas and they talked about, “Well, if we’re going to deal with unemployment insurance, let’s deal with it in a way that we can also make some structural reforms.”

In 2012, I was part of the conference committee between the House and the Senate where legislation was formally considered in this body, in the other body, brought to a conference in regular order. And we had a very vigorous debate about the structure of unemployment compensation, and significant structural reforms were made to the program.

So, this is not a situation where we have neglected to look at the unemployment compensation program for years and years and years. It’s two years ago that we made these changes.

We strengthened the job search requirement.

We’ve even allowed states, if they choose to, to drug screen applicants, which is an extremely controversial provision but that was included because we were responding to particularly many members of the House of Representatives who said this has to be something the states could do. Well, this is something the states can do. I don’t think most states have take up the option but this is something that they can do.

Indeed, after the House passed this agreement, Chairman [Dave] Camp issued a statement noting in his words “The historic reforms to federal unemployment program are an important part of the agreement. These reforms will now help the unemployed get the training and resources they need to move from an unemployment check to a paycheck. The package overturns arcane 1960’s era regulation and allows states to drug screen and test those most at risk.”

So, I’m always willing to listen to proposals to make changes but we have to recognize we’ve made significant changes to this program. In Mr. Camp’s words, we’ve been revising provisions that had been there since the ’60s, and that was about two years ago. So, we have made these changes.

But we’re willing to work in good faith if additional changes are necessary but they shouldn’t block a three-month extension, much of it retroactive, that is pending before the Senate today.

…One other point and that is in the context of this debate, there’s been the suggestion that “Well, UI is in some way inappropriate. You know, immoral. It encourages people to avoid work. It makes us as Americans lazy and dependent.” That’s not what I see when I go back home.

What I see is people who say – even recognizing my efforts to try to get this bill passed – they say, “That’s fine. But what I really want is a job. I want to work. I want to work for many reasons. One, the $350 a week I get – that barely, barely keeps me and my family whole. It’s a little help for gasoline. It’s a little help for the rent. But I can’t live on that. I have to have a job.”

Oh and by the way, I think most Americans want to work because work defines us. Work gives us not just a place to go but gives us a meaning to our lives, just as family does. And so this notion is that this is just this program that indulges those who don’t want to work is profoundly wrong, and indeed, it’s an insult to millions of Americans that desperately want a job.

By definition, UI is based on their work history. It’s not a program you qualify for by showing up… You’ve got to be told, “We can’t keep you anymore. We’re sorry. You’re a good worker but we can’t keep you. You’ve got to go.”

In fact, if you were not a good worker, if you were fired for cause, you don’t get these benefits.

And then they have to actively keep looking for work.

And as I said in the 2012 provisions, legislative provisions, we gave the states more authority to make that active search much more active, much more real, not perfunctory but an active search.

Now, because of the obstructions we’ve seen, most Americans are now simply eligible for 26 weeks of assistance – the standard program administered by the states. But the Washington Post notes that it takes an average job seeker about 32 weeks to get hired and in some cases even longer because of high unemployment.

In my state, it’s 9%. Now, in some states where it’s remarkably low because of the particular economic conditions there.

But as the Post points out, for the average worker it’s 32 weeks. Well, those 26 weeks will not cover their unemployment period as they desperately search for work.

And the other cruel fact is the longer you’re unemployed, the harder it is to get a job. That’s what we know from research. That’s what we know from just our own sense of the economy.

So the notion that someone like a chemical engineer who’s been out of work for seven months, who has a great record – the first time he or she has ever lost their job, should take the first thing available to him or her at the lowest cost, the lowest wage, one, I think it devalues their lifetime effort; and two, it potentially denies us of their productivity. I’d rather see a chemical engineer work in a job related to chemical engineering than stocking shelves because his productivity is his contribution to society would be much greater doing the job they were trained for and they have experience to do.

Our nation is at its best when everyone has the opportunity to put their talents, their skills, their experience to work.

We need to get our country back to full employment. We all know that’s the answer – that this is an emergency provision – a bridge, if you will, to a job. And we have to do more not only to put people back to work but to make the wages they receive allow them to live not just paycheck to paycheck but allow them to live with the sense that they are building up some security for themselves and their families.

We have the resources to achieve this. We are paying for this provision. We are not putting it on the shoulders of the next generation. We are limiting it to a very short period of time so that there is an opportunity to work and look at what we did in 2012 and see if we can do more.

The question before us is does this Senate have the will to make it happen? Renewing UI isn’t the end of our efforts. Our efforts are to get the work out there so that people don’t need it, that it’s not 32 weeks to get a new job; it’s several days, we hope. But this is the building block we need to put in place to move forward.

This process – this expiration has caused morale in my home state great hardship. It’s time to end that hardship.

So I urge my colleagues to renew this provision. This is one of those issues where it simply comes down, in my view, to this: This is the right thing to do. I honestly believe that there are many more than 60 of my colleagues that fundamentally believe this is the right thing to do and the right way to do it. The question is will they vote that way in a few hours. I hope they do…


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