Thanks to congressional inaction, more than 200,000 laid-off workers could lose access to unemployment benefits this week, and no flood insurance policies will be renewed or issued until Congress returns on April 12 -- despite record long-term joblessness and record rainfall.
Congress failed to pass an extension of several programs expiring today, including Emergency Unemployment Compensation, the National Flood Insurance Program, and a 65 percent subsidy of COBRA health benefits before adjourning for a two-week Easter break on March 25.
It's a game of political chicken: Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are each gambling that the other side will look worse for the lapse. Senate Republicans blocked the Democrats' $9 billion proposal to extend the programs on an emergency basis (without a funding offset); Democrats rejected a Republican proposal to pay for the programs by raiding stimulus bill funds. Party leadership in the Senate had apparently negotiated a one-week stopgap extension with a funding offset, which Senate Republicans said House Democrats rejected.
By pushing its own version of the extension and voting against adjournment, the GOP has made a concerted effort not to repeat what happened in February, when Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, without the support of Republican leadership, took a stand for deficit reduction and single-handedly blocked a similar temporary extension of jobless aid. Senate Republicans voted against adjourning for Easter, saying they would be happy to stay and argue through the break even though they thought they would lose a vote on the bill.
Congress enacted the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program to fight the recession. EUC provides up to 53 weeks of federally-funded benefits (broken into four tiers consisting of several weeks each) on top the 26 weeks of benefits provided by states. About 6.5 million Americans, comprising 44 percent of all the unemployed, have been looking for work for longer than six months. Some six million are relying on some form of federally-funded unemployment benefits.
The National Employment Law Project estimates that 212,000 people will lose eligibility for EUC benefits this week. And many more people will be told by state workforce agencies that unless Congress does something, they too will prematurely exhaust their benefits.
"It is unacceptable that Congress has, for a second time, failed to extend the existing federal benefits programs with so many people counting on this assistance," said NELP director Christine Owens in a statement. "We have been down this road already and seen the turmoil it caused. Congress cannot continue to play games with people's lives."
Fortunately, any disruption to unemployment benefits should be brief. During the Bunning blockade, most state workforce agencies were able to operate as normal for one week on the assumption that an extension would soon pass. After reconvening on April 12, Congress will pass an extension of the programs that should apply retroactively, meaning laid-off workers should eventually receive any checks missed because of the lapse.
The same goes for flood insurance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency advised last October that a lapse in the program shouldn't cause too much trouble: "If there is a lapse in NFIP authorization, any hiatus period should be brief, and most of the nearly 5.6 million flood insurance policyholders nationwide will not be affected."
But that doesn't mean the lapse won't cause lots of confusion and panic among people who are told their benefits will be cut off.
HuffPost readers: Will you be affected by the flood insurance lapse? Have you been told by your state workforce agency that you will prematurely lose your unemployment benefits? Tell us about it -- email email@example.com.
Click HERE for a PDF with a state-by-state breakdown of benefits exhaustions.