November 26, 2013
Paul Ryan (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Paul Ryan (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Republicans have been working overtime to draw attention to human stories about people losing health coverage thanks to Obamacare, confident in the belief that they can win a war of anecdotes that will help destroy the law in the realm of public opinion.

But over one million other Americans are also set to lose another form of insurance — and in this case, it is Democrats who will be highlighting their stories in an effort to prod Republicans into doing something to stop it from happening. The insurance in question is unemployment insurance.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee have penned a letter to the GOP chairman of the committee — Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan — urging him to take a break from the hearings about Obamacare and hold one on the need to extend unemployment compensation. The letter from ranking Dem Sander Levin and other Dems says:

We write to request that in the days remaining this year you turn the Committee’s focus to the economy, as Americans continue to recover from the deep economic crisis. To that end, an urgent economic issue confronts us through the pending expiration of the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program on Dec. 28, when 1.3 million Americans would immediately lose vital insurance as they continue to look for work…we must hear from Americans who just days after Christmas would immediately lose their unemployment insurance if Congress takes no action. We invite you to work with us in setting up such a hearing, so that the human consequences of the pending expiration of the federal unemployment insurance program are fully understood.

Needless to say, such a hearing into the plight of the unemployed is never going to happen. But the invocation of the expiration date being just “days after Christmas” is interesting. Dem aides believe that Republicans are not focused on how much of a political problem this could prove for them, producing human stories of people losing unemployment compensation in a slow news week during the holidays.

Republicans have not said how they will handle the expiration. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner emailed: “If the White House has a plan in mind we’ll take a look, but it would be better for the president to focus on helping the unemployed find jobs.”

But extending unemployment benefits would help the economy. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently noted that 1.3 million people face an “immediate cutoff” from unemployment coverage, that long-term unemployment has been much worse this time than in previous recessions, and that extending benefits would help offset the drag on the recovery created by continued austerity.

The coming battle over unemployment should also raise questions about the GOP’s poverty agenda. Paul Ryan has gotten a lot of attention lately with his promise to roll out such an agenda. But in an interview with Business Insider, a key outside poverty adviser to Ryan seemed sour on policies such as unemployment insurance, claiming: “It’s really easy to reduce poverty if you just give cash to people but obviously, that causes people to work less. It causes them to behave  irresponsibly in other ways.”

However, Ryan’s adviser also noted that the GOP should “offer something positive to the poor” and to have “some  element of a mobility opportunity agenda that does offer them something from the  federal government.” In other words, at some point, the GOP will roll out some sort of poverty agenda that prioritizes “mobility” (what that will look like remains to be seen) over the sort of safety net “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,” as Ryan himself has put it.

For now, the fate of the more than one million unemployed set to lose insurance remains unclear.

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UPDATE: Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has responded at length to the argument that giving “cash” to people causes them to “work less” and “behave irresponsibly in other ways.”

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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