Do Members Of Congress Understand Unemployment Benefits Legislation?

WASHINGTON -- Do members of Congress and their staffers understand that if they don't approve legislation to reauthorize federally-funded extended unemployment insurance by the end of November, two million layoff victims will prematurely stop receiving benefits during the holidays?

Apparently, many of them do not.

"We found ourselves over the weekend in a conversation with two public opinion analysts who were telling us that they didn't think there was that much public support for this," Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told HuffPost on Wednesday. "And they thought by 'extend,' what we meant, and what the administration is proposing... was to not let anybody ever go off the side and to just keep adding weeks, which is not what anybody is talking about at all."

"They told us that they thought a number of members of Congress and their staff were similarly confused," Greenstein said.

To fight the worst recession since the Great Depression, Congress started giving the unemployed additional weeks of federally-funded unemployment benefits in July 2008 on top of the 26 weeks always provided by states. The benefits became more generous in 2009 to the point where in hardest-hit areas, the jobless are eligible for 73 weeks of extra benefits, for a total of 99 weeks in some states.

All 73 weeks of federally-funded benefits expire on Nov. 30 without a congressional reauthorization, which will face stiff opposition from Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed to deficit spending, which is the traditional way of financing extended unemployment benefits during recessions.

Apparently, some members of Congress and their staffers fundamentally misunderstand the question before them. They think they're being asked to hand out additional weeks of benefits to help the "99ers" -- people who collected unemployment for nearly two years without finding work. (There are bills to give additional weeks to the 99ers, but those bills are pretty much dead in the water.)

"The same confusion exists in the media and it exists in the general public," said a lobbyist who works on the issue. "This isn't about adding more weeks. This is about the 27ers."

The lobbyist said leadership offices and progressive offices understood the issue just fine. It's the rank-and-file members and their staffers who don't get it.

"It is the task for people like us, for the White House, for policymakers, and I would argue, for journalists covering the issue, to try to clarify what the issue is and what the issue is not," said Greenstein.

The same confusion existed a year ago, when Congress added the final "tier" of benefits giving the jobless up to 99 weeks right before the underlying Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was set to expire. The New York Times reported on Nov. 18, 2009 that "many legislators, state aid officials and struggling workers apparently failed to read the fine print."

The federal government has never provided as many weeks of unemployment insurance as it's currently giving the long-term jobless. It's also never taken the the aid away with a job climate as frigid as the current one -- but that's what might happen now.

As the CBPP pointed out on Wednesday (and as HuffPost has reported), Congress has never allowed extended unemployment insurance to lapse when the national unemployment rate is above 7.2 percent. The current rate is 9.6 percent and it's not expected to go down anytime soon.

If Congress reauthorizes the extended benefits for only a few months -- as it has done four times in the past year -- then they'll come due for another reauthorization in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told HuffPost that the jobless won't get any help next year from incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

"It's a funny thing," said Pelosi. "I have this impression that some of the people who did not vote Democratic, because they -- they didn't vote Democratic -- are people who don't have a job. And they need unemployment insurance and the Republicans are not for it."