In the first budget skirmish of the year, an Appropriations subcommittee in the Democratic House yesterday approved $2.3 billion in supplemental funds to keep up unemployment benefits and help the unemployed find jobs, then added funds the administration opposed to help poor people pay their winter heating bills.
The administration had requested the unemployment money, made necessary because unemployment rates have exceeded last year's estimates and because some state unemployment offices--whose budgets were cut at the administration's request last year--were also running out of funds.
To dramatize this first clash of the year, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) personally appeared before the subcommittee--and television cameras--in favor of the $343 million needed to keep open the state unemployment offices and $123 million in extra energy assistance for low-income households.
The administration requested the supplemental appropriation for unemployment after Democrats introduced an emergency funding measure of their own last week. "It is sad that this latest administration flip-flop did not come sooner," O'Neill said yesterday.
Budget cuts voted last December are forcing a reduction in the nationwide job services staff--the people who help unemployed workers find new jobs--from 24,500 to 17,500 just as the nation's unemployment rate is rising dramatically. Some states have already begun to lay off job services workers and close employment centers, leading Republican as well as Democratic members of Congress to question the wisdom of last year's cuts.
On energy assistance, however, the administration yesterday sought to hold firm to last year's cuts, which reduced the fuel grant program from $1.85 billion to $1.75 billion.
"We see no basis for adding funds," said Linda S. McMahon, associate commissioner for family assistance in the Health and Human Services Department. States in need of funds could transfer money from other social welfare programs, she testified.
O'Neill, however, said 11 states have run out of money and 17 others expect to run out by the end of the month, leaving thousands of poor families without money to pay heating bills at a time when the cost of home heating oil has risen 15.7 percent in a year, unemployment has added to the rolls of those needing help, and the nation has experienced the coldest January of the century.
"The people who benefit from the low-income energy assistance program are not simply statistics," O'Neill said. "They are real. They are the elderly, and disabled. They are children, and working poor desperately trying to avoid welfare. Helping them is a national responsibility."
The resolution increasing unemployment funding passed unanimously. The resolution on home heating funds passed with only one dissent, from Rep. Robert L. Livingston Jr. (R-La.), who said that air conditioning was more of a problem in his district than heat.
If House Republicans fight the issue on the floor next week, they can expect major defections from Northeastern and Midwestern GOP members, who fought against the energy assistance cuts last year.
A parade of congressmen yesterday testified to the drastic effect of the job services cuts in their states.