Some Republican Senators tried last night to reduce the unemployment benefits promised to low-income workers by the pending 2.2-trillion-dollar coronavirus relief bill. Senators Ben Sasse, Rick Scott, Tim Scott, and Lindsey Graham said that giving laid-off workers an additional $600 a week on top of the normal benefit could discourage them from working:
…the GOP senators argued that the agreement, which they’ve called a “drafting error,” could prompt individuals who earn less while working compared to the unemployment benefits to quit their jobs or not return to work.
“Something hit me like a ton of bricks … Under this bill you get $23.15 an hour based on a 40-hour work week not to work,” Graham said from the Senate floor on Wednesday night. “We’ve created Pandora’s box for our economy” [Jordain Carney, “Senate Rejects GOP Attempt to Change Unemployment Benefit in Coronavirus Stimulus Bill,” The Hill, 2020.03.25].
A Democratic aide told Roll Call that the $600 benefit is no drafting error:
But a Senate Finance Committee Democratic aide not authorized to speak on the record about the issue said trying to limit a benefit increase to a worker’s full salary presented logistical problems. “The administration made clear that state unemployment offices did not have the technological capability to calculate wage replacement on an individual basis, which is how we came to the bipartisan agreement on a $600 increase per week in benefits,” the aide said [David Lerman, “Unemployment Insurance Provision Hangs Up Coronavirus Relief Package,” Roll Call, 2020.03.25 ].
Senator Bernie Sanders took the floor last night to ridicule the Republican concern over handing extra money to low-income people. The junior Senator for Vermont opens with comments against more corporate welfare, then really goes to town on the unemployment-check grumblers at 3:45:
“Here we are in the midst of the worst economic downturn perhaps since the Great Depression, tens of millions of people are worried to death about how they’re going to feed their families, pay their rent, prevent a foreclosure,” Sanders added. “And these guys are just staying up nights worrying about low-income workers getting a few bucks more.”
Sanders also accused the Republicans of backing corporations over workers, highlighting their support for President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax plan.
“You have all kinds of people here who voted, including Sen. Graham and the others, they voted for a trillion dollars in tax breaks for the 1% and large corporations and now they’re really worried that a low-income worker might receive extended unemployment plus $600 a week,” Sanders said.
“Oh, my goodness,” he added sarcastically. “How terrible is that?” [Caroline Kelly, “Sanders Rips GOP Senators for Voting for Tax Cuts but Objecting to Increased Unemployment Benefits,” CNN, 2020.03.25].
Imagine if we had a President who talked like that.
Maybe giving low-income Americans more money than they were making at their crappy jobs before the coronavirus shut down the economy isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe helping more Americans stay home and out of crowded workplaces for a few more weeks or months will further flatten the infection curve and save more lives. And as I say even in good fiscal times, even if you want to accept an argument that certain people don’t deserve government benefits, giving a million “undeserving” poor people an extra hundred-dollar check from Uncle Sam to buy groceries and pay rent does less damage to and more good for the economy than giving a hundred “undeserving” rich people and corporations a million-dollar check to buy back stocks and bolster their secret South Dakota trust funds.
Senator Sanders and 47 other Senators voted against the reduction of the proposed unemployment benefit, tying the 48 ayes and killing the amendment. The Senate then voted 96–0 to pass the coronavirus relief package.