Close readings: Unemployment extension defeated in Congress

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, presumably saying "yea" very quietly.

Late Thursday night—while the rest of us were having a dream in which we go to the bank and the teller says “Your account has accumulated substantial interest, Mr. Brooks,” before opening a vault full of zombies, zombies—Congress did not pass an unemployment benefits extension. Already we enter the realm of subjectivity. In strict, learn-about-it-in-high-school journalism practice, one is discouraged from constructing stories around what did not happen.* The headline on the AP story—Congress fails to pass an extension of jobless benefits—has the word “fail” right in it, as if passing the bill to postpone expiry of unemployment benefits for one million Americans were something the legislative branch meant to do and just couldn’t put together. In some sense, that’s kind of accurate. The Senate voted 57–41 in favor of the bill, but a Republican filibuster derailed it during procedure. Those are the facts. What happened depends on what news you read.

You could say that Jobless Bill Dies Amid Deficit Fears, as the Wall Street Journal did, though that would imply that it met with majority opposition. Really it just met with a filibuster, which is probably why Money Morning presents the less cheerful GOP Takes Hardline on Federal Deficit By Killing Unemployment Benefits Extension. In addition to ignoring the difference between “hard line (n.)” and “hardline (adj.),” MM notes that “Democrats failed to secure the 60 votes needed to end a GOP-led filibuster.”

In this case, “GOP-led” means “containing only Senators from the Republican Party plus Ben Nelson.” The New York Times now borders on Homeric epithet in its use of “lone Democrat” Ben Nelson, a phrase which it appends to the senator’s name more often than his home state. Never one to violate its ethics by telling us how to interpret a story, the Times lets Harry Reid do its editorializing: “‘You’ll hear a lot of excuses,’Mr. Reid said at a news conference. ‘The bottom line is the minority just said no.’”

Mitch McConnell, who understandably does not want to be known as the man who stopped Democrats from mailing your unemployment check, disagrees. “The only thing Republicans have opposed in this debate are job-killing taxes and adding to the national debt,” he told the Times, which sounds completely reasonable until you consider that opposing A) taxes and B) adding to the national debt means being against C) pretty much all functions of the federal government. The only things I oppose in this marriage are having to drive places and sitting around the house.

As Eric Pearlman writes in a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Republicans stand on shaky ground when they cast their opposition to the jobless bill as a matter of pure fiscal responsibility. They didn’t seem nearly as concerned about the national debt when they controlled Congress and the White House, during which time they cut taxes, approved two wars of adventure and turned a budget surplus into a massive deficit. The GOP appears to support unwavering fiscal responsibility except in matters of war and corporate/upper-class taxation,* which is another way of saying that you support rich people.

It’s unfair, though, to attack Republican fiscal conservatism on the grounds that they did not display that virtue in the past. To say it’s hypocritical to try to save money because you were spending it freely before you ran out is to miss the point. We have an enormous federal deficit and we have 1.2 million people about to lose their jobless benefits—two things that seriously threaten an already sick economy. According to the AP, governors have already warned that not passing the bill—and the billions of dollars it awards to state benefit programs—will result in tens of thousands of state workers being laid off.

These are known facts. Whether those tens of thousands of jobs were wasteful socialist pork and the 1.2 million unemployed Americans who will lose their benefits this week have stayed on the dole because it’s easier than looking for work is a matter of conjecture. Faced with those problems, with continuing crisis-level unemployment and an economy that refuses to improve anywhere but in the Dow, Congress has opted to do nothing.

They and the press have interpreted that nothing adroitly. Perhaps Thursday filibuster will finally convince the American people that the Republican Party is serious about controlling deficits. Perhaps it will finally show aforesaid people that the GOP is the party of obstruction, embittered and willing to sacrifice the welfare of the unemployed to political gamesmanship. Surely, this is a promising development for either Democrats or Republicans. What it is not is a solution to any of the problems Congress set out to address. The nature of that problem remains exactly the same as if we had no Congress in the first place, or if the one we had remained committed to talking about the meaning of what it would have done, if only it had a chance.

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