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Paul Wellstone’s unfinished business

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Paul Wellstone’s unfinished business

by Ross Eisenbrey

When Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota died in a plane crash on October 25, he had a long list of legislative projects that meant a great deal to him, from welfare reform to improving veterans’ medical care. But the last legislation he attempted to move on the floor of the Senate was urgently needed relief for millions of the nation’s jobless and their families — the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act, a bill he authored with Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

More than 8 million Americans are unemployed — more than the population in any one of 39 states, and more than the labor force of any single state other than California, Texas, or New York. Over a million and a half workers have been jobless for more than 26 weeks, the normal duration of state unemployment insurance benefits.

Last March, when the unemployment rate was 5.7% and the economy appeared to be picking up steam, Congress and President Bush agreed to give most of the long-term unemployed 13 more weeks of benefits, beyond the usual 26 weeks provided by State programs. Those extended benefits have helped 2 million families pay the rent and put food on the table.

But that law will expire soon, and millions of workers whose benefits will run out after December 28 will be on their own, in a job market that has enough unfilled jobs for fewer than half the unemployed. With 2.4 unemployed workers for every vacancy, it is simple arithmetic to see that no matter how hard they try, most will be unable to find jobs. If Wellstone were alive, he would not allow Congress and the President to turn their backs on so many hard-working Americans in their time of greatest need.

On October 9, while the Senate was still debating the Iraq resolution, Wellstone took the floor to ask unanimous consent to take up his bill, which was co-sponsored by 32 Senators. He begged his colleagues to put themselves in the shoes of the unemployed:

“First, I appeal to the humanity of everybody here. Just imagine–I don’t know how many Senators have been out of work — when you have a family to support, unemployment benefits are a lifeline.”

“We have a trust fund, and we have more than enough money to support this. We are not spending additional money out of general revenue.”

“How many Senators have been through this? If you are out of work and you have run out of benefits, you cannot put food on the table. It is a terrifying situation. I think our common humanity dictates that we must do this. Today, I want this unanimous consent agreement to be agreed to.”

Sadly, Sen. Don Nickles objected to Wellstone’s request, and the Senate recessed without ever taking up the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act or any other bill to address the issue. Similarly, the House leadership rejected requests by almost 200 Democrats and 20 Republicans to take up the companion bill to Wellstone’s or one like it. House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas said he would support only a much narrower bill that would do nothing for most of the long-term unemployed in all but three states. But even that bill was never acted upon.

The economy is in worse shape now than last March when Congress enacted the current extended benefits program. Unemployment is just as high, consumer confidence is much lower, home mortgage foreclosures are at 30-year highs, and personal bankruptcies are at the highest level ever recorded. In September alone, 370,000 people ran out of temporary federal unemployment benefits without finding work. Almost every economic forecaster, from the Congressional Budget Office to Wall Street, expects unemployment to rise further and remain high until at least mid-2003. Even without the oil price shocks expected if we go to war with Iraq, no one is forecasting that the economy will create enough jobs to reduce unemployment significantly.

Thus far, President Bush has given no indication he will support further help for the unemployed. In the early 1990’s, a young Paul Wellstone voted four times to extend unemployment benefits during the recession and jobless recovery that faced the first President Bush. Initially, Bush resisted, but he ultimately signed three extensions of unemployment benefits into law. By then, he had lost much of the luster of his war leadership.

President George W. Bush will no longer have Paul Wellstone to push and cajole him to make good on claims of compassion. We can only hope he heard Wellstone’s call and responds to these needs with what Wellstone called “the dictates of our common humanity.”

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute.


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