Unemployment-Insurance Extension's Problems Go Past House Republicans

It's not just about the politics.

Matthew Giarmo of Alexandria, Virginia, who lost his contract job with the Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, holds up a sign seeking a job with a lower salary than he would normally ask on a street corner October 8, 2013 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

It's been two days since the Senate sent a five-month extension of unemployment-insurance benefits to the House and, counter to some optimistic Democratic thinking, Republican leadership hasn't moved a muscle.

But even as Democrats ramp up the pressure on Speaker John Boehner and his colleagues, it is becoming increasingly clear that even if the legislation clears the House, many problems still lie ahead.

For one, the bill expires on May 31, when the long, winding congressional debate over insurance for jobless Americans will begin once again. The chances of an extension passing the House this week before members leave for a two-week Easter recess are near zero, meaning that at best the long-term unemployed are looking at five weeks of benefits.

But the real problem is the retroactive benefits. The current bill, which passed the Senate on Monday, also includes retroactive benefits for those who stopped receiving their checks on Dec. 31. But, according to The Washington Post, the National Association of State Workforce Agencies has some real concerns about whether it will be possible to get those lump-sum checks out to the unemployed.

Many states have stopped keeping track of people in the unemployment-insurance program, and finding them — much less assuring that they continued to look for work after their benefits expired, as is required under the program — will be nearly impossible, NASWA Executive Director Richard Hobbie told The Post. And even if they clear that hurdle, it could be up to three months before those people get their checks, Hobbie said.

Democrats disagree, and point to a letter Labor Secretary Thomas Perez sent to senators last month. "In prior iterations of [emergency unemployment compensation] where there has been a gap in the program, we have successfully overcome this challenge, and the Department already has guidance on how to carry out such a directive," Perez wrote. "We are confident that we could successfully address this challenge again."

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who led unemployment talks in the Senate, pointed out that Perez once served as the labor commissioner for Maryland and has seen the implementation of retroactive unemployment benefits first-hand. "I think this is something well within the capability of the states," Reed argued.

But even Democrats admit that implementing retroactive pay will be difficult and time-consuming. And House Republicans are not letting the NASWA's concerns go: Boehner's office circulated the Washington Post story outlining those worries on Tuesday.

In response to those concerns, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer posed the prospect last week of merely renewing the emergency unemployment-benefits program beginning in May and forgetting about retroactive pay altogether.

"There are three times as many people looking for jobs as there are jobs available — and we are adding 72,000 people on a weekly basis to the unemployed roles," Hoyer told Majority Leader Eric Cantor on the House floor Friday. "So if we made it prospective [rather than retroactive], that would save an awful lot of people the pain and suffering that they are experiencing because they can't find a job."

Hoyer added for clarity that he does not "accept [the] premise" of the NAWSA's letter to members of Congress outlining their concerns about implementation.

Cantor didn't directly answer the question but argued, as Boehner has on numerous occasions, that the House should focus on creating more jobs for the long-term unemployed, rather than on paying them benefits. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said Tuesday that even without retroactive pay, Republicans are still concerned about the fact that the Senate bill lacks specific job-creation provisions.

Of course, doing away with retroactive benefits would pull the teeth out of the Senate's legislation unless the renewed unemployment insurance benefits were extended beyond the current May 31 deadline.

Democrats are not discussing the possibility of doing away with retroactive benefits at the moment, said Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan and other Democratic lawmakers and aides involved in the process. Hoyer's comments were aimed more at getting Republican leadership on the record opposing another solution — and concession from Democrats — rather than offering a new Democratic proposal, one aide speculated.

"I think we're open to doing anything that gets the Republicans in the House to move," Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said Tuesday. "But we've got something that's passed bipartisan in the Senate and I think a lot of us believe that unless the House Republicans tell us that they're ready to do something that we can live with, it's better to try to go with what the Senate proposed."

In response to House Republicans' concerns, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who supported the unemployment-insurance bill in the Senate, called on her colleagues in the House to pass their own version of the unemployment bill and send it back. "If they believe that that is an insurmountable problem, then I would encourage them to send us a bill that perhaps causes people to have to reapply and show that they're still unemployed and go forward," Collins said, noting that she would have to look at any such House proposal before saying whether she could support it.

"But my point is that I think there are solutions to the problem," she added.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who worked with Collins on the Senate's extension bill, said "there might be" support for a fix that did away with retroactive benefits, but said that their group spent little time on the issue because of Democratic commitments to reimbursing those who have lost their benefits since December.

Asked about the issue Tuesday, Reed stuck by his bill. "Hopefully, they'll take up our bill right away and pass it," he said.

Even so, concerns about the implementation of retroactive benefits will likely be a large part of Sen. Dean Heller's discussions this week with Boehner about moving the unemployment bill along. Though a meeting had not yet been scheduled as of Tuesday, the Nevada Republican's office has reached out to put one on the calendar and the senator has indicated that he would be open to making some concessions in order to get the bill through the House.

However, last week Heller dismissed Boehner's characterization of the bill — and the retroactive benefits specifically — as unworkable. "I think it's workable. The Labor secretary says it's workable, Nevada says it's workable. If some states can do it, then all states can do it. So, anyway, that'll be the topic of conversation," Heller said.