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Is there hope for 99ers in the 112th Congress?

January 25, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The American 99ers Union, a coalition of groups advocating for people who have been unemployed for more than 99 weeks, have announced that Rep. Barbara Lee [D, CA-9] will reintroduce her bill from the previous session of Congress to extend the total length of time a person can collect unemployment insurance by 14 weeks and provide the new benefits retroactively to people who have already exhausted all of their benefits. Now, the mere introduction of a bill is not in itself a newsworthy event, especially when it’s being introduced by a liberal Democrat in a conservative, Republican-controlled chamber. But the 99ers Unions is suggesting that the new bill will be paid for, and, depending on the details, that could be enough to make it at least within the realm of possibility that it could see action this session.

Kelly Wiedemerof at the Denver Examiner is reporting that a spokesperson in Speaker John Boehner’s [R, OH] office said recently that Boehner “supports U.I. extensions if they are paid for.” It’s definitely possible that Boehner’s office is referring to extending the timeline for people to apply for the current tiers of benefits as they exist now, not extending the total length of time that benefits would be available as the Lee bill would do. Let’s wait for clarification on that. We already know that many members of Congress are confused on how the system of extended unemployment benefits works.

The big question, though, is how the Lee bill will be paid for. The announcement on the 99ers Union website says that it is “paid for under the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2008.” But that don’t make sense to me. The ‘08 supplemental provided $162 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan through 2009, $63 billion for veterans’ education benefits, $12.5 billion for an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits, $2.7 billion in disaster aid and relief funds for the June 2008 Midwest floods, and $10 billion in additional funding for other programs. It’s a spending bill with no revenue measures — pretty much the opposite of a bill that could make funds available to be used to pay for other stuff. Furthermore, the House Republicans aren’t accepting just any “pay for” this year for new spending. They want all new spending to be offset with corresponding spending cuts, not tax increases or reallocations of other appropriations.

That said, we’ll need to wait and see the details of the bill once it is officially introduced. Rep. Lee obviously knows what it will take to get a bill like this though the Republican House. If she’s serious about extending benefits for 99ers, her bill will have a pay-for mechanism that fits with the Republicans’ rules. Otherwise, there’s no way it’s going anywhere.

In other 99ers news, the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan, government think tank that prepares reports for Congress, has finally addressed the issue of long-term unemployment. Arthur Delaney at HuffPo reports:

There are 1.4 million “very long-term unemployed” who have been out of work for 99 weeks or longer, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

Ninety-nine weeks is a milestone for the jobless because that’s the limit for unemployment benefits (though 99 weeks are not available in all states). Beyond that point, the jobless aren’t eligible for much help besides food stamps and charity. The job market for anyone out of work that long is downright hostile.

The 1.4-million figure, calculated using the latest data available as of October, is much smaller than some home-cooked estimates circulated online by advocates for additional weeks of benefits for these “99ers.” Some of those estimates are as high as 7 million.

Hopefully this helps get more folks in Congress to pay attention.

Rep. Barbara Lee is pictured above.

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