Opinion: GOP refusal to extend unemployment benefits is very dangerous

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Unemployment claims have been more than twice the worst week of the Great Recession for 18 consecutive weeks.

Congressional Republicans are holding 34 million unemployed Americans hostage, threatening to let expire the $600 in enhanced unemployment benefits that is helping distraught families survive the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. They waited until benefits are only a day away from disappearing as a misguided way to gain political leverage.

They are playing a dangerous game with people's lives.

While Republicans stall on renewing benefits, unemployment claims have been more than twice the worst week of the Great Recession for 18 consecutive weeks; more than 11% of American workers are unemployed; there are four job seekers for every opening; and millions have given up looking for work because entire sectors of the economy are partly shut down.  

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But Republicans say unemployed workers are getting too much assistance from the federal government — it makes them lazy. Senate Republicans should tell that to the more than 16 million unemployed Americans who live in the states they represent. The simple fact is that there aren't jobs to be had right now, and there won't be until we get the virus under control.

The best way to address the extreme financial pressure facing American families is for Congress and the president to pledge to the American people that we will help as long as help is needed. We are all in it together. We are one nation, faced with the greatest challenge since World War II and the greatest health crisis in 100 years. 

It didn't have to be this way. Donald Trump has badly bungled the coronavirus crisis, and we are paying an extraordinarily high price in lives lost and economic damage. If he had simply taken the advice of experts, not done the opposite of what they say, we wouldn't be facing 66,000 new coronavirus cases a day.

Republicans have followed him in lockstep, fearing his wrath so much that they remained silent while he recklessly refused to take action and then threatened governors if they did not "liberate" their economies. 

As a result, cases of COVID-19 are skyrocketing, state economies are closing again, 2.3 million Americans filed for unemployment last week, millions of Americans stand in lines at food banks or have applied for food stamps, and 28 million renter households are at significant risk of eviction. A survey by the Census Bureau of more than 80 million households found that more than 40% of Americans report serious anxiety or stress.

Refusing to extend enhanced unemployed benefits would damage the economy. The Congressional Budget Office estimates extending enhanced federal unemployment benefits would boost overall economic output in the second half of 2020.

The expiration of enhanced benefits could spur a sharp decline in consumer spending, leading to a new round of business closures and more layoffs. The Economic Policy Institute projects that letting the expanded benefit expire would cost 5 million jobs over the next year due to a drop in consumer spending. Job losses and business closures are already becoming more permanent

In mid-May, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that "we're not quite ready to intelligently lay down the next step, but it's not too far off." Now, just a day before enhanced federal unemployment benefits will effectively expire in most states, Senate Republicans aren't much closer to passing a bill.

Republicans are reportedly considering extending the enhanced benefits through the end of the year, but only by an extra amount of $200 per week. That would be a $1,600 cut each month for each unemployed worker. Even that meager offering is in limbo, with Republicans turning on each other as the deadline looms. 

If unemployed Americans lose $600 a week in unemployment benefits, there will be widespread suffering. The pain will be felt even in Kentucky, where hundreds of thousands of displaced workers will see their weekly benefits fall to an average of just $332. Like the mismanagement of COVID-19 and the thousands of unnecessary deaths, this too was preventable. 

At this point, McConnell and Senate Republicans have guaranteed at least a partial lapse in the benefits as it will take at least a few weeks for state unemployment offices to reprogram their systems.

For McConnell, delay was just a negotiating tactic. He presumably would put congressional Democrats, who are determined to protect American families, in a vise — the families are just collateral damage.

They should have extended enhanced unemployment benefits months ago. In a crisis as horrible as this one, Americans deserve to know that the federal government will be there to help as long as help is needed.

Failing to do the right thing in a crisis is unforgivable.

Rep. Don Beyer (VA-8) serves as vice chair of the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee and is also a member of the New Democrat Coalition.