GOP Again Holds Working America Hostage to its Perverse Ideological Priorities

Despite a late-night deal to avert a government shutdown, John Boehner and House Republicans are still basically holding the American economy hostage. The $1 trillion spending deal late Thursday evening doesn't change the fact that they passed a bill out of the House to extend a payroll tax break and unemployment insurance for millions of Americans whose benefits are set to run out that's loaded with “poison pills” – items long on the right's wish-list that the Democrat-controlled Senate has made clear would be dead on arrival in the upper chamber.

The Republicans' bill, H.R. 3630, dubbed the “Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2011,” would do anything but create jobs. The only job it seems concerned with is the temporary construction work that would go into the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring oil from the Canadian tar sands – oil that is extremely destructive to extract – to the West Coast.

The Obama administration stalled the project over concerns that it would have significant impacts on the environment. (The thousands of protesters carrying out dramatic acts of civil disobedience didn't hurt either.) The Republican bill would force immediate approval of the pipeline despite the State Department's decision to delay construction until it can properly consider the environmental impact.

Other than that, the GOP's bill seems far more interested in taking whacks at the already-unemployed than trying to put them to work. Siddhartha Mahanta at Mother Jones explains:

Under current law, unemployed workers are eligible for up to 99 weeks of federal and state unemployment benefits. States pay for the first 26 weeks of those benefits, and the federal government foots the bill for between 34 and 73 more—the exact number varies from state to state based on each state's unemployment rate. If the Republicans get their way, workers who use up their 26 weeks would only be able to receive benefits through week 59—reducing their benefits by up to 40 weeks. The GOP bill also reduces the monetary value of the benefits it does provide.

But cutting benefits—and kicking the economy when it's down, as losing benefits would cut those unemployed folks' ability to spend money to the tune of about $22 billion—isn't enough. They also want to impose harsh punitive measures on benefit seekers, requiring all those who receive unemployment checks to hold high school diplomas or GEDs (no offers to fix crumbling public schools or pay for GED programs are on offer, obviously) and to submit to drug-testing.

Karen Nussbaum, executive director of Working America, told AlterNet, “People don't know how to make sense of what's happened to them and to tell them that they don't deserve unemployment, they ask, 'What am I supposed to do? Should I try to get my house foreclosed right now and try to find a relative to live with?' The disruption it's creating in communities is unconscionable. It's inhuman, it's bad economics, and it's disrupting the fabric of the nation.”

Florida, which passed a requirement that benefit recipients must pass a drug test, found that only 2 percent of the state's poor actually turn up positive. That means the state has to reimburse thousands of people for the cost of their clean drug tests. Of course, the real goal of the policy isn't to catch drug users—it's to scare people who might possibly test positive away from applying for benefits in the first place, as well as to remind those who need help from the state that they surrender their privacy and rights when they fall on hard times. It reinforces the idea that you deserve what you get.

Nussbaum added, “People are unemployed because there are no jobs. It has nothing to do with any aspect of their health, including whether they're taking drugs or not. There's not a real problem in the first place, this isn't a solution. What it does is it raises a false issue that puts the blame on the victim rather than looking to real solutions like tax fairness, investing profits in jobs in this country, for a start.”

In addition to the attacks on the unemployed, the GOP's bill contains a host of other ideologically motivated items, the Huffington Post reported. They include a block on a proposed rule that would cut down on industrial pollution, a move to stop undocumented workers from collecting the children's tax credit, an extension of a pay freeze on federal workers for another full year and also a cut to the government's contribution to public workers' retirement plans. Rounding out the right-wing catnip, they'd raise the fees that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac charge lenders to back their mortgages and charge higher-income seniors more for Medicare.

Democrats have insisted that the extension of the 2 percent cut in the Social Security tax rate paid by workers be offset with a 3.25 percent surtax on millionaires—a pretty obvious case of the 1 percent paying for a policy that benefits the 99 percent. Republicans, naturally, won't even consider that possibility. They filibustered a stand-alone bill that would have extended the tax cut and enacted the millionaire's tax, S. 1917, Payroll Tax Relief for Middle-Class Families and Businesses, on December 1. And so it appears, as of Thursday, that a deal to drop the tax on the ultra-rich in exchange for extending the payroll tax cut may be in the works.

Now that the spending bill has been completed, averting a government shutdown, Congress is left with the fight over the payroll tax break and unemployment. 

And this latest round of fighting over policies that would help working people and the unemployed comes as a new U.S. Census Bureau calculation shows that a full 48 percent of the American population qualifies as low-income—97.3 million people below 200 percent of the poverty line, and 49.1 million below it.

Nussbaum noted the stubbornness of the GOP's support for their wealthy base. “In the face of universal public sentiment in favor of creating tax fairness by taxing millionaires, they still persist in this lie that these are the job creators,” she said. “It makes no sense to people that you'd have to judge between whether millionaires should get a tax break or whether unemployed people should be able to put food on the table next week.”

For the fourth time this year, the gridlock in Congress has barely averted a government shutdown (or debt default), with a compromise eked out at the last minute each time. And each time the ultra-rich have managed to get out of paying more in taxes. Obama has said he'll veto the House GOP's payroll tax/unemployment extension bill as it stands, but as the Democrats appear to have already given in on the millionaire's tax, what else will they compromise on in order to get something passed?

While not all of Congress falls on the 1 percent side of the economic divide, most of them are insulated from any consequences of their actions. They can grandstand and horse-trade and compromise at the last minute, safe in the knowledge that no matter how little they accomplish, no matter how many people are harmed by their actions, they still collect a paycheck, have health insurance, and probably have lobbying jobs awaiting them when they leave office.

Nussbaum told AlterNet that the people she has spoken to around the country are fed up with a government that can't manage itself and fed up with policies that favor the rich. “I think what we do have is consensus in this country that this tax system is out of whack,” she said. “This is not the last time this conversation is going to come up and it's our job to make sure that the momentum builds behind it. If the lawmakers are having a hard time getting on board, the people are just going to have to get even more adamant.”

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