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Each Senator's Record on Unemployment Benefits (and a Bit of Fiscal Responsibility)

Most senators who opposed adding to the deficit also supported a trillion-dollar budget-busting tax cut in the form of repealing the estate tax, without any spending cuts or tax raises.
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Holding members of Congress accountable is hard when you can't remember how they voted, so at OpenCongress we put together a scorecard to track how each and every senator voted on the contentious issue of extending unemployment benefits over the last two years. After crunching the numbers, we discovered a few things we expected (Democrats really, really wanted to extend unemployment benefits), a few we didn't (Republicans were surprisingly diverse in their votes), a few head scratchers (Missouri's senators were the least likely to show up to vote despite having a 9.1% unemployment rate) and at least one irrefutable truth (Ben Nelson has a whacked-out definition of "fiscal responsibility").

The scorecard contains twelve votes over the last year and a half on bills or amendments where the primary issue was extending unemployment benefits. The amount of time the unemployed could receive benefits varies from state to state, but Congress passed blanket extensions several times since the beginning of the economic downturn. The crucial issue in most cases - as claimed by senators opposed to extending the benefits - has been that the bills have not been offset (paid for) by tax increases or spending decreases elsewhere, and thus they add to the federal government's growing debt. (Some senators have grumbled about the adverse incentives benefits provide, including Dianne Feinstein, though she has a 100% record supporting the extensions.)

As such, it's fair to think of this as a debate basically between those who think that unemployment benefits are a crucial enough support to those suffering most from the economic downturn (not to mention being a good stimulus program because the funds are pretty much immediately put back in the economy) and that they should be funded without raising taxes or cutting spending during a recession vs. those who think that the federal debt is one of the most important economic issues we face and that everything should be done to keep it from growing.

At the bottom of this post, however, we point out a wrinkle in this position: most senators who opposed adding to the deficit also supported a trillion-dollar budget-busting tax cut in the form of repealing the estate tax, without any spending cuts or tax raises. There's more details below, but suffice to say, this does make the "fiscal responsibility" position of many senators look more than a little tenuous.

We've picked out the interesting bits immediately below, but you can find the full "scorecard" of votes on extending unemployment benefits - including sortable rankings, vote details and no-show votes - at OpenCongress. If you or one of yours is unemployed, there's also lots of great resources over at the community-driven Benefit Wiki project on the OpenCongress wiki.

The line-crossers

Votes on unemployment benefits were a largely partisan affair, but there were exceptions. There were 62 Democratic senators in office from 2009 to 2010, and 42 of them supported extending benefits 100% of the time. Six senators caucusing with the Democrats, excluding the seriously ill Robert Byrd, voted against benefits or failed to show up to vote more than once:

Republicans really did have a Big Tent when it came to unemployment votes. Of the 41 Republican senators in office from 2009 to 2010, 23 voted for unemployment benefits at least a third of the time and three voted for them more than not: George Voinovich (Ohio) supported extending them 58% of the time and Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) each supported extending them 75% of the time. The hardcore anti-benefits voters were Jim Demint (S.C.), who didn't cast a single vote in favor of the extensions and Tom Coburn (Okla.) and former southern Democrat Jeff Session (Ala.), both of whom voted for benefits only once.

Who didn't even show up to vote?

Also of note were those senators who decided not to show up for unemployment votes. Only 24 senators missed any votes, but eight (excluding the seriously ill Robert Byrd) missed more than one:

Is unemployment not an issue in Missouri? (This recent George Packer article in the New Yorker is an excellent read on why getting many senators to show up is part of the general disfunction of the chamber.)

Schizophrenic fiscal responsibility

Finally, because the number-one issue raised by opponents of the various unemployment measures was that they weren't paid for and expanded the deficit, it's useful to look at a vote on one amendment to the final unemployment bill (H.R. 4213) that also wasn't paid for, to the tune of $1 trillion over ten years: a repeal of the estate tax. The vote on this amendment (which failed, 39-51), which would have cost more than the entire rest of the bill, generates some ugly conclusions about certain senators when looked at through the lens of "fiscal responsibility":

  • Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has a pretty incomprehensible stand on fiscal responsibility, voting to dramatically expand the deficit through the estate tax repeal while publicly declaring that the reason he could not support the last unemployment benefit vote was that "in my view it could jeopardize the recovery and would add to our already enormous deficit." (It is unclear if Nelson thinks the estate tax repeal's addition to the deficit would not "jeopardize the recovery.") At the time, he also pointed out that "on April 13, 2010 the Nebraska Legislature adopted LR538, a resolution noting that the national debt has continued to grow, generating concern from economists, legislators and taxpayers across the country and that stated, ‘The Legislature remains committed to seeking a federal balanced budget.’" (It is unclear if LR538 contained a provision that said "except for repealing the estate tax.") To be fair, Nelson supported extending unemployment benefits 58% of the time, but after staking his reputation on being a deficit hawk, it's hard to rationalize his vote on the estate tax.
  • Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has an altogether consistent stand on fiscal responsibility - she's against it. Lincoln voted to extend unemployment benefits 92% of the time while also supporting the budget-busting estate tax repeal.
  • As a group, Senate Republicans are not very consistent with their fiscal responsibility. The only Republican who consistently voted against adding to the deficit by extending unemployment benefits and, well, failed to vote for adding to the deficit by repealing the estate tax (he didn't vote) was David Vitter (R-La.), and it's doubtful that he actually opposed the amendment.
  • Only three Senate Republicans generally sided with the unemployed over heirs and heiresses. The three who voted against the amendment also generally supported extending unemployment benefits: George Voinovich (Ohio), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).
  • As a group, Democrats also failed to demand that every bill be paid for, with most supporting extending unemployment benefits every time, though with the exception of Lincoln and Nelson, they all voted against the estate tax repeal.

This selective definition of fiscal responsibility wasn't always the case, as former Reagan Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman reminded us this weekend in a New York Times op-ed:

Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too. But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

The whole op-ed is an interesting read, but any value judgements aside, Stockman gives a bit of history to show that the new version of fiscal responsibility only applies to the spending side of the equation, not to taxes. Further proof of this was recently found by the folks at TalkingPointsMemo. Whatever Ben Nelson and the Senate Republican leadership (and Blanche Lincoln?) are doing, it has little to do with balancing the budget.

Here's the rankings table (Note that rankings go from most-supporting to least-supporting because that's what was easiest to do in Excel. It is not meant to imply that extending benefits was the "good" position.):

Extend UE


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