The “comeback" has not turned out to be quite so glorious. On Thursday, it was reported that 2.3 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance, the 18th straight week in which that number exceeded 1 million. In Congress, this continued economic catastrophe has set Republicans fighting with one another, as their small-government ideology crashes against an economic nightmare that could cost them the White House and the Senate.
To begin, we should note that while most headlines are citing 1.4 million as the number of newly unemployed, that figure covers only those applying for traditional state unemployment insurance. When you add in those who applied to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program — which was set up for gig workers and others who aren’t eligible for ordinary UI — the total is 2.3 million for this past week. That brings the total number of Americans either on unemployment or waiting to get approved to a stunning 34 million.
So Republicans are grudgingly coming around to providing another round of assistance to the economy.
The Cares Act provided for an extra $600 a week for people who are unemployed, on top of what they would normally get from their state. In some cases, this meant workers would actually bring in more than they had been paid while they were employed, which many conservatives found appalling. And now with that $600 benefit set to expire next week, those conservatives want to make sure we stop coddling this nation of layabouts.
The result is a conflict within the GOP between, among others, Sens. Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton, both of whom would like to be president one day:
Cruz vented his frustrations in private at a lunch Tuesday. As Republican lawmakers continued to add costly items to the ballooning virus aid package, he asked, “What in the hell are we doing?” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was similarly vocal about spending concerns, even though others — such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) — argued in favor of spending a little more so that Republican senators in tough reelection races would have tangible policy wins to bring home for voters and help the party’s chances of retaining control of the chamber.
They both have a reasonable case to make, at least from where they sit. Cotton is right that Republicans are headed for disaster, and if they want to give Trump any chance of winning — and keep themselves from being pulled down with him — they should be showering every penny they can find on the economy.
Cruz, on the other hand, is right insofar as conservative ideology defaults to the position that giving help to struggling people is bad, and, if it must be done, that help should be as brief and stingy as possible.
To be clear, in ordinary circumstances it could indeed be a problem if unemployment benefits were so generous that you could be paid more not to work than to work. But these are not ordinary circumstances. For the vast majority of unemployed people, finding work is simply impossible right now.
Not only that, but when people are called back to their old jobs, they do so even if they’ll make less than they brought in on UI. Recent data show that nearly 70 percent of people who returned to work in June were making more on UI than they were in their jobs, but they went back to those jobs anyway. Contrary to what Republicans believe, Americans are not a bunch of indolent scammers. They want to work.
The latest proposal from the White House is to provide no more than 70 percent wage replacement in UI, meaning, for example, if you were making $3,000 a month in your job, your unemployment benefits could be no more than $2,100 a month. In other words, we’ll keep you from starving, but it might not be enough to allow you to both eat and pay your rent, which will give you just the incentive you need to get your lazy butt off the couch and get a job.
And of course, congressional Republicans — and particularly the president — seem almost completely uninterested in doing the one thing that would allow everyone to go back to work so the economy could recover: defeat the coronavirus pandemic. It’s just too hard.
But what may be most notable about the argument now playing out inside the GOP is that when it comes to these kinds of policy decisions, nobody seems to care what Trump thinks. Congressional Republicans’ fates are tied to his, and they’re all affected by the insane things he does. But no one is concerned if he says he wants a payroll tax cut, or if he even has any opinions on unemployment benefits.
Though the best thing for Trump, the Republican Party and the country would be if Republicans accepted the kind of expansive, generous rescue package Democrats support, they can’t bring themselves to do it. The end result will be a half-measure inside a compromise, somewhat limiting the nation’s suffering but not doing nearly enough to enable the economy to recover.
Then they’ll go before the voters in November and ask the public to validate their record of disastrous governance. It doesn’t seem like much of a strategy.